how to start a conversation


Conversation is innate to humans. You can rely on this as you invite people to join a conversation. Talking and listening to one another is something we remember; it’s what humans have done for thousands of years, so it’s deep in our species' memory.  These days, because of the bad habits we’ve developed and the frantic pace of our lives, we may need to be reminded about slowing down, not interrupting, listening to each other and not instantly responding.  Here are some simple techniques to host a good conversation that help people remember and redevelop their skills.

  • Start with a few friends or colleagues. This is how all powerful change initiatives begin. Some friends start talking.

  • Make sure the topic is one that matters to people, what they really care about.  Meaning is what motivates people. Talking about something that matters brings us into the conversation and keeps us engaged.

  • Form as a real circle. In a circle, everyone is equal. Thus, the form itself is crucial to a good conversation. No one should sit in back, and the circle shouldn't wobble around into different shapes. An easy test for a circle is this: Everyone can see everyone else. If latecomers stay outside the circle, or people gradually push their chairs back and shift out of the circle, stop and recreate yourselves as a circle, with everyone visible to everyone else. Don’t let the circle form morph into an amoeba!

  • Use a talking piece. This is any object that can be passed around. It can be a pen, a cell phone, or something more meaningful, such as a special stone or object. The talking piece has two rules: 1. You don't speak unless you're holding it. 2. You try and speak truthfully while holding it. (These rules come from Native American and African traditions.) There is no easier way to change power dynamics, or to facilitate thoughtful conversation. A talking piece slows the pace of conversation down, and when someone is speaking too long, it's much easier to signal that you want the talking piece than to tell them to stop talking. You don't need to use it constantly, but the talking piece is most helpful when:
    • you're just getting started,
    • when the conversation heats up,
    • when too many people are talking at once,
    • when one person keeps dominating,
    • when people are silent

  • Check-in and check-out. At the start of the conversation, pass the talking piece around the circle. Each person checks in very briefly. State at the start how much time you want people to take. Start with whomever wants to start, and then pass the talking piece clockwise around the circle. The check-in can be a few words describing how I'm feeling, or why I'm here, or what I hope might happen. In this process, everyone gets to speak, and thus their voice enters the circle. Check-out is similar, and closes the conversation. Start with whomever wants to go first, and then pass the talking piece counter-clockwise. Each person says a few words about the conversation, what was meaningful, important, distressing, helpful, etc. (The direction in which you pass is taken from Native American traditions.)

  • Experiment with good listening. Conversations rely on good listening, and this is one skill we seem to have forgotten. One helpful means is to ask people to listen for the differences in what people are saying. Instead of trying to find those who agree with you, listen for who is saying something new and different. Another means is to ask people to try and notice when they've stopped listening, when they've wandered off in their attention, and once they’ve noticed, to just bring themselves back to the conversation.

  • Do not be afraid of silence.  Most of us fear silence that lasts more than 10 seconds.  We jump in to get things moving again.  Instead of fearing these moments, just sit with them.  They’re usually moments when people are thinking or reflecting. Even if silence seems to go on for an unbearably long period, do not interrupt it.  It always ends, and what happens next is much richer than if the silence had not been allowed to continue.

Some things to watch for

  • Make sure latecomers come fully into the circle. They’ll tend to hang on the outside, not wanting to disturb what’s going on.   When they arrive, it’s essential to stop the process and invite them in.  Then check that everyone can see everyone else, the test that you’ a true circle.

  • The first several minutes will feel disconnected, even a bit chaotic.  People will bounce around and several topics will be introduced.  This is o.k.  In part, it’s everybody trying to get into the conversation with their point of view.  But it also gives people the chance to see which topic they want to talk about.  After about 20 minutes, check to see if the group has found what it want to talk about.  If not, suggest that they pick up one thread and stay with it for a few minutes.  If it doesn’t go anywhere, look for another topic.  When the group finally settles and finds the topic of most interest, you’ll notice that the conversation shifts and people become more engaged.

  • Don’t be shy about using the talking piece.  It really helps.  The only people who complain about it are those who routinely dominate the conversation. (They complain that it disrupts their spontaneity or slows things down, or that it seems unnatural.) Trust the talking piece—it works beautifully especially for the introverts or those with less power in the group.

  • Notice those who remain silent. Invite them to speak, but don’t force them to.  Sometimes the silent ones are the ones really listening; eventually they’ll say something very useful and impactful.

  • Keep noticing if the conversation is boring to people. If you notice several people withdrawing (body language), ask if we’re still talking about the right topic—does it still matter to people?  If not, change the conversation.

  • At the end of the conversation, ask people to notice what made this a good conversation, or not.  It’s good to draw people’s attention to the conditions that make for successful conversations.  They become better participants the next time.

You will know it's been a good conversation if:

  • People move toward the center of the circle. They lean into the conversation.
  • Voices become quieter. The entire room grows more quiet.
  • People don't want to stop. Time passes very quickly.
  • People express surprise over how quickly they moved into deep conversation, even among strangers, and how satisfying that felt
  • People want to do this again.

Continuing the Conversation
If your group continues, and you will be in conversation over time, you will benefit by exploring techniques to deepen and grow the conversation. We recommend the work of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, found at We have used their work at The Berkana Institute and found it to be a very powerful means for deepening conversation. At their website, you can download a "Basic Guidelines for Hosting a Circle" booklet. Their method works for groups up to about 30 people.

Conversation among large groups
Intimate conversations can be hosted for very large groups (1200 people is the current benchmark) using The World Café process. This is a superb process for developing intimate conversations among a large group of people, and weaving those conversations into collective knowledge and wisdom. We have used this process many times in Berkana's work. See This site provides guidelines and principles for hosting a café, information about many different types of cafés, and links to many other conversation projects and resources.