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The newspaper may not be reporting but we are currently facing a crisis of conversation. On the one hand, there is a feminine of quality conversation in our relationship. Communication break down has become a major cause of divorce in western countries, while the average couple in Britain spends more time watching television together – around 50 minutes per day- than directly talking to each other. On the other hand, there is a plague of superficial talk, much of it due to the incessant chatter created by new technologies. Around ten trillion text messages were sent globally in 2012, but how man y  of them involved conversations that inspired, consoled or touched people?

This crisis matters for the future of empathy. Why? because conversation is one of the essential ways in which we come to understand the inner emotional light and ideas of others. The hidden thoughts in other people heads are the great darkness that surrounds us, observes the historian Theodore Zeldin. Conversation enables us to penetrate that darkness. IT shines a light into the minds of the human universe we encounter everyday – lovers, stranger, adversaries or friends. Conversation and empathy are intimately intertwined : making the effort to comprehend another persons perspective can help bring an otherwise unremarkable dialogue to life, while conversation itself has the power to forge empathetic connections. Together they can generate a virtuous circle, building upon and reinforcing one another. That is good news confronting crisis in conversation, and also for tackling our empathy deficits.

The challenge is to rethink how we talk to people so we can gain greater insights into their thoughts, feelings and world views, and deepen our emotional bonds with them. And for this we can learn from the experiences of highly empathic people. I have noticed that they bring six unusual qualities to their conversations: curiosity about strangers, radical listening, taking off their masks concern for the others a creative spirit, and sheer courage.

Beware: these qualities should not be thought of as techniques or tools. The idea of conversational technique goes back to the etiquette books  of the eighteen century which instructed people on how to correctly address a duke or a cardinal (if you happen to meet one). In the nineteen thirties the self help write dale carnage popularised communication techniques in his book how to win friends and influence people: his advice included smiling a lot and repeating people’s names as you speak, so they think you like them and are really listening to them. His tips and tricks can still be found amongst the long shelves of communication guides on sale today. The problem with such strategies is that they can make conversation mechanical stilted, introducing a self consciousness and artificiality that actually get in the way of empathy.

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