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One of my minor achievements in politics was having the idea of the Big Conversation. This was an attempt by the Labour Party to reconnect with its supporters in the wake of the divisive decision to invade Iraq. I remember writing a chunk of text for Tony Blair’s conference speech calling for a national debate over future policy and being both flattered and terrified when he delivered it verbatim.

One of my minor achievements in politics was having the idea of the Big Conversation. This was an attempt by the Labour Party to reconnect with its supporters in the wake of the divisive decision to invade Iraq. I remember writing a chunk of text for Tony Blair’s conference speech calling for a national debate over future policy and being both flattered and terrified when he delivered it verbatim.

 

The Big Conversation was successful in one way and a failure in another. It helped to accelerate the shift away from politicians engaging primarily by delivering speeches to the process of participants engaging with each other, with politicians responding to the points raised by the groups. This process helped to identify some key issues which Labour leaders then agreed to push up the agenda - for example, expanding flexible working rights for parents and carers. The process was seen to fail as a way of developing detailed policy recommendations, which was slightly unfair in that no one sensible would ever have thought such a thing was possible in the first place.

 

I was reminded of the Big Conversation when reading ‘Conversation: how talk can change our lives’, a book of lectures by Theodore Zeldin. It’s one of those books that is impossible to summarise, so full it is of fascinating perspectives and insights. But running through each perfectly formed lecture is a simple assertion that runs doubly counter to intuition. We tend to think of conversation as easy but unimportant; in calling for a ‘New Conversation’ Zeldin says the reverse: conversation is vital to well being, growth and social harmony but it is also hard to do well.

 

‘Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts; they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards it creates new cards…It’s like a spark that two minds create. And what I realty care about is what new conversational banquets one can create from those sparks’

 

Yesterday I had a conversation with Matt Grist who is running our ‘social brain’ project here at the RSA.  We are at the difficult early stage of the project, trying to develop a conceptual framework both for the ideas themselves and for the method and purpose of the project. It is a good investment of time to work away at this but the sense that we might never crack it generates anxiety. We were discussing the three levels from which human action emerges: the physiological (hard wired-automatic responses), the socio-cultural (the norms which tacitly determine behavioural options) and the cognitive (the decisions we choose to make).

 

Human development can involve moving actions from one level to another, and, interestingly in both directions. Learning a skill, for example, a new language or musical instrument or sporting prowess involves moving down the levels.  We start off having to think about everything but – if we persist – more and more becomes automatic. Cognitive and behavioural therapy involves a reverse process by which patients are given insight into dysfunctional hard wired mechanisms, which they must learn to identify and deliberately block if they are to relieve anxiety or depression.

 

Good conversation involves action at all three levels. Research in neuroscience and psychology has shown the powerful automatic processes of empathy taking place when we enjoy speaking with other people. A conversation will also conform to powerful cultural rules governing what is appropriate. And, of course, during the conversation there will be moments (although probably not as many as we tend to assume) when we ‘decide’ to listen or speak in a particular way.

 

In my annual Chief Executive’s speech last year, I offered the inelegant phrase ‘neurological reflexivity’ - the idea that important consequences would flow from more of us better understanding the ways our minds work. I am planning to have lots of conversations today, ending up with a Fellows’ evening in Leeds. I’ll report back later on whether thinking about conversation affects the way I experience it.

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