Nihal Arthanayake on the transformative power of good conversation
The BBC Radio 5 Live presenter whose new book – ‘Let’s Talk: How To Have Better Conversations’ – writes exclusively for Soho House on the power of proper discourse
Friday 19 August By Nihal Arthanayake
The main reason I love being a member of Soho House is because every time I visit a club, I’m reminded that everything – from the furniture and the seating arrangements through to the nooks, ambience and rules around mobile phone use – is designed explicitly to aid good conversation.
In fact, there’s rarely a visit that doesn’t end up with me having some kind of dialogue with an interesting person, whether pre-arranged or at random. Yet once I leave the Houses and venture out onto the streets of whichever city I’m in at the time, I am struck by how many people seem to prefer the glare of their phone screens to the verbal and non-verbal cues that connect us through conversation.
During the process of writing my debut book, Let’s Talk: How To Have Better Conversations, I became acutely aware of how harmful our hand-held supercomputers are becoming. Though they may masquerade as innocuous pieces of tech lying beside us at the dinner table, these machines are expressly designed to draw us away from the people sitting right in front of us. Screen facing skywards and within eyeshot, notifications enabled, ready to connect us to an influencer in New York, or a Facebook friend in Istanbul, the phones and their makers want to monopolise our time and monetise our eyeballs.
From the storied halls of Ancient Greece, with its symposiums that saw privileged men gather to engage in conversational entertainment, to the explosion of the coffee houses that encouraged polite debate and disagreement in 18th-century London, we humans have always had a fundamental need to connect. My book is an attempt to reset, rather than return to an analogue past. It’s a reminder that there is so much to be gained from having a really good conversation IRL, rather than through the pernicious prism of a smartphone.
For Let’s Talk I interviewed a plethora of fascinating individuals. I had an ear-opening chat with the former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese; spent a revelatory hour with Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and human rights activist, Deeyah Khan; and I also spoke with TV host Lorraine Kelly. Additionally, I spent time with big thinker, author and broadcaster Matthew Syed and the former police chief superintendent and crisis negotiator John Sutherland.
It was Sutherland who introduced me to the Chinese symbol for listening, which is split into four quadrants. Each quadrant represents one of the elements required if you are to truly listen to someone. Two involve the eyes and ears, of course, but the Chinese also believe that you must listen with your mind and with your heart.
This advice wasn’t coming from a new-age hippy, regurgitating something they had just gleaned from a mindfulness podcast (although there is nothing wrong with that), but rather a seasoned police crisis negotiator who truly understands the power of active listening.
The other day, while driving my daughter back from her kick-boxing class, she mentioned a phrase she had learnt at school that had resonated with her deeply. She posed a question: ‘Are you listening to understand or listening to reply?’ The question asks us to question our approach to conversation. Is it merely a means of setting us up to talk about ourselves? Or is it a mode of communication that allows us to be exposed to different ideas and experiences?
To my mind, if we want to have better conversations with each other we should focus more on the former and be mindful of not being drawn into the latter.
Let’s Talk: How To Have Better Conversations, by Nihal Arthanayake, (£14, Trapeze)