How to oxygenate your conversations

| October 25, 2016

Do you sometimes silently scream when you have yet another exchange about the weather in your daily encounters? Leah Sparkes encourages us to be courageous and explore the bigger questions of what it is to be human.

Last week I attended an evening at “The School of Life” called A Night of Better Conversations. The School of Life is the brainchild of Alain de Botton, a Swiss born, British based philosopher. The ‘school’ offers educational programs and events that explore ways to make work more fulfilling, improve relationships and make life more meaningful.

The inspiration for the event was the idea that many of us are looking for deeper, more meaningful conversations.

The facilitator posed the notion that for many of us our conversations and interactions are often superficial. That most of the time we are presenting a busy and achieving version of ourselves to impress our fellow conversationalist. Or we keep to very superficial discussions on real estate, high schools or the weather. Over time that kind of conversation, whether at work or at home, causes stagnation to occur. We miss out on juicy, life affirming connections with others.

Great conversations can create bonds, build trust, promote understanding, boost careers and deepen friendships.

Last year The New York Times featured an article with 36 questions (designed by psychologists) that will make you fall in love. The premise was that if you asked each other all 37 questions there was a high probability that you would fall in love. The questions were designed to create mutual vulnerability, which in turn fosters closeness. So great conversations can even cause us to fall in love!

Back at the ‘School of Life’ our work was to practice having better conversations. We were provided with some interesting, oxygenating questions to try out on total strangers. It was fun and energising.

I loved this event because I certainty crave conversations that explore the bigger questions of what it is to be human.

My favorite questions from that night are:

  • What in your life do you feel most grateful for and why?
  • What surprises you the most about your life right now?
  • What do you regret not doing because of fear?

With those first few Christmas gatherings already in the calendar I want to be better prepared to have great conversations.

Please post and share those juicy questions that take you out of the shallow end of the conversational pool and get you well into the deep end. Be brave and try out a few at your next work lunch or school picnic! Like oxygen we all need good conversations.

“Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.”
Edith WhartonThe Age of Innocence




  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    October 25, 2016 at 10:45 pm


    I am with you all the way here. What I miss most of all is the ability to have an intelligent conversation on a fairly regular basis where I am at the moment. I have been looking on-line for a forum which will enable me to do this but so far haven't found one. It's a pity because I feel that there are many others out there who, like me feel a sense of loneliness for want of a better word because of it.

    • Leah Sparkes

      Leah Sparkes

      October 26, 2016 at 2:16 am


      Alan, thanks for your comment. From what I heard at the School of Life we are not alone. Many people who go to those events are looking for more substantial conversations. You could check out "The School of Life" if you are in Sydney or Melbourne. Or perhaps you are the one who could take the first step… Try and drop in a juicy question in the canteen or work lunch… I know I am really going to try over the coming weeks… Good luck with it!

  2. Rechelle Rozwadowski

    Rechelle Rozwadowski

    October 26, 2016 at 2:36 am

    Yes, so very true Leah. Thank

    Yes, so very true Leah. Thank you for writing about this topic. It's easy to avoid having those deep conversations or even ones that at the very least, that prompt real thought. While there are certain contexts that encourage a more meaningful exchange, I wonder if people are afraid to either pose or be on the receiving end of such personal or explorative question? I find people fascinating and so love skipping the superficial or surface questions, but I'm also aware that you need to go in slow sometimes if you want to develop a person's trust and in turn a more meaningful conversation with them. At the end of the day we all want to be heard and to have someone really listen to our 'stories'.These more meaningful questions allow us all to 'be heard' in a way that makes us feel valued and human.

    • Leah Sparkes

      Leah Sparkes

      October 27, 2016 at 10:40 pm

      Thank you for your wonderful

      Thank you for your wonderful comment Rechelle

  3. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    October 26, 2016 at 4:34 am

    Don’t just talk about it, start a conversation.

    Just before reading your blog today Leah, I was relaxing on a street bench when I saw two people almost collide as they rounded a shop corner in opposite directions. They recognised each other, but the exchange soon became awkward after initial pleasantries which rose to a crescendo, followed by a contra-tempo manoeuvre that would not look out of place on The Prado. The body language clearly indicated an urgency to escape the scene that had not been evident prior to the encounter. I suppose the corollary of a series of questions increasing the probability that the questioners will fall in love is that the wrong answers or another set of questions might just as probably cause lovers to fall out. Have you noticed that many eating places, and some restaurants, have brought the 'background' music so much into the foreground that it drowns any attempt at conversation? Salting the food, turning up the heating and playing faster music can be used to move people along, but eating and drinking are, or should be, very social activities. We instinctively form a circle around a fire, perhaps to share the warmth and for mutual protection. Families gather around a table, but it's about much more than food and drink. During my working life, I learned a lot in the 'brew room' that wouldn't make it onto a meeting agenda or memorandum. Informal conversation is often where the "t"s are crossed and the "i"s are crowned. Without conversation, other sorts of dots don't get joined at all. I wonder that managers still seem to undervalue informal conversation, apparently believing it to be necessarily unproductive in spite of office spaces ostensibly being reshaped to capture the benefits of incidental exchanges. A lateral thought, even a contradiction, can be the spark that ignites innovative thought. In spite of it all, we are complex and unpredictable. Perhaps that's why the most intense and loudest conversations are often held in the 'quiet carriages' on trains. 'Open Forum' allows for the presentation and exchange of ideas between thinking people and I'm inclined to believe that readership is a better measure of engagement than the number of comments. We all know that so-called 'social media' can be quite antisocial, its purpose is often unclear with propaganda and commercialism commonly presented as information. Conversation frequently amounts to unsupported opinion, some of it negligent and even defamatory. True conversation requires personal and immediate interaction between two or more individuals, otherwise it is more in the nature of correspondence. Have we deluded ourselves into believing that visual images are a complete form of communication? Is a picture really worth a thousand words? There are many 'meetup' groups for like-minded people who have decided to stop talking themselves out of talking. On 'lonelinesss' for want of conversation and substituting the written word when circumstances are constraining, I know where you're coming from Alan Stevenson, I'm doing it now but it will pass.

    • Leah Sparkes

      Leah Sparkes

      October 27, 2016 at 10:49 pm

      Thanks Max, I love the point

      Thanks Max, I love the point you have made about ' lateral thought or even a contradiction, can be the spark to innovative thought'. So true yet I think our culture discourages differences of opinion and we all lose as a result. I see it in corporate culture all the time; negative feedback or contradiction is avoided at all costs and innovation and growth stymied as a result. I think this also happens in our personal interactions. I know I am guilty!

      • Max Thomas

        Max Thomas

        October 28, 2016 at 6:29 am

        Temporal feedback

        I didn't mention 'overhearing' in my comments on your conversation blog, Leah. In a small town on the South Island of New Zealand recently, I couldn't help overhearing a conversation between two old-timers. Nothing unusual about that except I was diagonally opposite them at a crossroad in the main street. It was mid-morning but so quiet I felt as though I had been transported back in time. A momentary insight into how it once was. There was a working blacksmith further along where I met the two chaps later on. I told them about my overhearing them, but it seemed to me that by then their conversation was mostly unspoken.