Leadership Development

Why Conversation is Crucial for Learning

I recently attended a fabulous two-day summit with a global team of consultants in San Francisco hosted by Actionable Conversations, the methodology that brings us together. There’s nothing quite like a room full of dynamic, like-minded folks - all skilled facilitators in their own right - engaged in learning and growth themselves.

The running joke in the room was that even if the slide deck was only 10 minutes, the feedback would be there wasn’t enough networking and connection time. Looking back, this felt more than true, which reinforced AGAIN the power of human connection at work and beyond.

The Social Science of Human Connection

Conversation and social learning supports change because it taps into our neurological systems, triggering different areas of the brain which helps our retention, problem-solving, sense-making and creativity.

Before technology, telephones or even pen and paper, face-to-face story telling is what kept communities functioning, led to invention and co-operation, and propelled social and political change. Author and researcher Yuval Noah Harari suggests that even gossip was part of our cognitive revolution and a powerful force in the building of ancient empires. Today we see the tremendous impact of social media gossip in our political, social and business lives.

Technology impacts human connection for both better and worse, but it also allows us to measure and understand how human connection works in the brain. We’re learning that brains engaged in social activity (i.e. conversation) release chemicals associated with positive emotional states (oxytocin) and feelings of belonging. Social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman suggests our human brain has evolved with a default system specifically focused on connection, continuously scanning and analyzing the environment for social information like facial expressions, conversation cues and emotional data. This brain activity is present at birth, developing and strengthening as we interact through our lives.

In her book Reclaiming Conversation, Psychologist and media scholar Sherry Turkle argues that technology interferes with our ability to connect on several levels, impairing the conversations we have with ourselves, with our friends and family, and in our larger groups in society. We are losing the skills to know and understand ourselves, to read emotional information, build empathy with others, and to engage in crucial, constructive dialogue that meets our basic human needs and solves big issues.

The Link to Learning

While technology offers many advantages and tools to support learning, it’s clear that face-to-face conversation should be a component of any learning process. During my summit event, I absorbed and clarified more ideas through 15-minute conversations with my peers than I had in months of working on it or reading about it on my own. In the same way that writing something down with a pen and paper can increase retention, face-to-face conversation engages more of the body, uses more areas of the brain and helps us not only digest and process complex information, but also helps us explore new thinking with others.

Research from the American Society of Training and Development suggests that when we talk about our goals or change commitments with others our likelihood to achieve them is 65%. If we commit to reporting back on how we did, it’s as high as 95%. We know that humans need social connection, and we are discovering that our social brain is connected to other brain functions and is more powerful than we realize. The value of human connection for learning is clear and we’re building conversation into the design and measurement of our programs here at Vibrant Work so teams and leaders learn vital connection skills, reinforce new habits outside the classroom, and create real, lasting change.

What conversations are helping you learn lately?