The Lost Art of Conversation?

03 December 2021
  • How Transatlantic connections are made between Wales and Nova Scotia using the power of conversation

    Every so often someone laments the lost art of conversation. It’s a recurring trope from those reacting to change; that the modern world is faster and faster.

    We no longer have time for the old-fashioned society where we had time to notice our surroundings and mindfully take in the wonder of the earth. The modern wonders now seem to take up all our energy, with our smartphones and social media accounts all clamouring for our attention as we rush from A to Z. No-one has time to stop anymore and just chat, it seems.

    This is not a new dilemma.

    Having grown from fears that the development of the railways during the 1840s and 1850s and the later development of the electric telegraph had sped up the world beyond the capability of humanity to cope, I wonder what they’d think of the dizzying speed of the world today?

    There is also always a nostalgic element to these concerns and movements that seek to promote an appreciation of artisanal craftsmanship and a perennial golden past and its lost way of life. Our modern version of the world does feel disconcertingly fast at times though and the various ‘slow…’ movements have provided a relaxed and mindful counterpoint.

    Conversations are an age old human bonding mechanism though; it’s the reason we have coffee and buffets at in-person events after all. Hospitality is good, but the value is in the connections; the ice broken by vol-au-vents.

    Friends with cognitive benefits

    In 2011, the University of Michigan conducted a survey that showed what types of social interactions boosted executive functioning. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and published in 2011 showed [opens in new window] that conversations based simply on getting to know each other with no competitive aspect enhanced core mental capacities. On the other hand, introducing a competitive aspect showed no benefits.

    The Random Coffee Trials method has been used by the Good Practice Exchange as well as many other facilitators in various guises for years. The heart of the method is that people are matched according to their occupations or interests, or they’re paired randomly. It’s a great idea, but its big weakness is that it needs a group of participants that are committed to the idea who are able to commit the time to arrange the meetings.

    There are many ghosts within the trials.

    A way around this limitation is to invite anyone who’s interested in a conversation with an interesting stranger to a common space and time and to have the conversations there and then, a method known as the Knowledge Café [opens in new window].

    International connections

    One marvel of the modern age is the updated trans-Atlantic cable that not only carries the telegraph, but also sound and vision! Being forced to work wholly from home and communicate via video link because of Covid-19 soon reminded us that distance was no object when it came to meeting others.

    It was no problem for an intrepid Welshman to attend events in other parts of the world from his home, one of which was a Knowledge Café hosted by Cindy Russell of Consider Conversation [opens in new window] from Nova Scotia. Chris Bolton, the intrepid Welshman in question had also already established a collaborative relationship with Ray MacNeil at the CLARI Institute [opens in new window], also in Nova Scotia. We’re always on the look-out for new or better ways to do things at the Good Practice Exchange, so we jumped at the chance when Chris suggested we work with Cindy and Ray to host an event together.

    Transatlantic Conversations

    The idea was that we’d use the Knowledge Café format to introduce a topic before the participants were led into Zoom’s breakout rooms for a set of conversations.

    The first Transatlantic Conversations event was held in January 2021, hosted by Cindy and talking about misinformation. The feedback from the first session was very good, so we ploughed on and arranged some more.

    By the end of this year we've held 4 events, with a further event on misinformation presented by OFCOM.

    We have also held two events looking at aspects of community. The first event looked at community resilience, with presentations from Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog [opens in new window] from Wales and the Happy Communities Project [opens in new window] from Nova Scotia sharing their experiences and prompting lively discussions. In October the session looked at housing with Ian Williams, Deputy Director of Homes and Places from Welsh Government and Pauline Macintosh of St Francis Xavier’s Extension Department who leads the development of their Community Housing Program.

    The same method has been applied to all the Transatlantic Conversation events so far: Pick a topic that’s relatable for both Wales and Nova Scotia then invite all those who have shown an interest previously, as well as anyone new who might be interested.

    Then the participants are matched before the session begins so that they match roughly in interest and occupation if possible. This takes time, but we think it’s a key to a successful event.  

    For now we’re taking a brief pause until 2022, before reconnecting soon to start thinking of the theme and structure of the next Transatlantic Conversations event which should be held in early spring.

    If you’re interested in coming along to the next one, please send a message to – we’d love to chat.

    About the Author

    Sion Owen is a Knowledge Exchange Officer with the Good Practice Exchange. He joined Audit Wales in November 2019, and previously worked at a local authority.