Conversations are a strong foundation for shaping the way ahead for our planet. Growing numbers of people suspect that issues such as climate change can’t be resolved within the current framework of thinking and decision-making.

The reworking needed to create a more sustainable, secure, just, and peaceful future does not rely on experts and professionals alone. It will depend on the mature participation, decisions, and skills of everyone. People are recognising the need to talk and act together, to explore possibilities for fundamentally different directions.

What are the underlying assumptions?

A number of assumptions underlie the need for conversations about a sustainable future.

  • The world, including our workplaces, homes and communities, has moved into a new set of social, political, economic, technological and ecological realities for which we need to be better prepared
  • People need to live the questions as well as the answers, and the language we use in our conversations may be better if it is personal and not too technical
  • Somewhat counter-intuitively, it is our successes, rather than our failures, which prevent us from breaking out of our “more of the same” bubble
  • A change toward a more caring and compassionate culture at all levels – from the personal to the ecological – can help rework our businesses, organisations and communities
  • The most helpful trend is the growing understanding that cooperation is the key to the future
  • The conversation process is a key strategy. People need to feel connected with others about their ideas and concerns
  • This is a time for courage and risks by arguing for a higher aspiration of human purpose
  • Ordinary people will be the strength in discovering the positive future available to us.

What helps conversation processes work?

People prefer that their conversations be conducted in various ways. Some prefer open, constructive conversations without rules and without facilitators. Others prefer more structured conversations with clear goals and process rules. Some want to focus on specific local or national issues, while others want to address the global system as a whole. Some prefer to focus purely on sustainability opportunities in their workplace or neighbourhood.

Green Street’s Clues on Conversations guidebook provides a general outline of some of the conversation process options available. The guidelines are based on a number of assumptions, namely, that conversation processes should be:

  • democratic – conversations should not be dominated or constrained by the authority of any person or status quo situation
  • able to generate ideas and energy that lead toward action
  • facilitated by skilled people (but not necessarily professional group workers) who do not themselves engage in any debate during the conversation event they are facilitating (if people decide they need a facilitator)
  • conducted in cost-free and easy-to-organise local environments (cafe, kitchen, workplace, the beach, school, community building, back yard)
  • designed to ensure that language, culture, gender, economic, and equity issues are handled so as not to disadvantage any person
  • varied in their approach to suit individual concerns, expectations and purposes.
  • open for people to decide their own conversational agenda and process.

People sitting and talking - illustration

Conversation as the energiser of new ways of being and new ways of doing

Conversation has always been the starting point for new ideas, new ways of being and new ways of doing. From circles of elders around ancient campfires to the conversations in the cafes and salons that spawned the French Revolution, to World Conferences in Glasgow, Summits in Australia and neighbourhood Green Street Cafes in Queensland, people have always gathered for real conversation about questions that matter.

In those times and places where innovation is born, other simple conditions are also present. First, there is the pursuit of a question that really matters and the commitment to creating the space and time to explore it. It is crucial that mutual listening and a spirit of discovery infuse these conversations. A certain type of “magic” appears — the magic of a new collective intelligence arising from the individual minds present in the conversation. The wisdom needed to address the concerns of any group is already “in the middle of the circle” waiting to be tapped.

These webs of conversations, and the action commitments that naturally arise from them, can serve as the energy generator, or amplifier, for co-evolving the future.

Conversation in daily life

Conversation is funny stuff. It is a way of creating a shared place that can be used for many different purposes. How we use language and other means to communicate with those around us makes the world, for us, the way it is.

It is one of the main ways by which we learn from each other. We engage in it to inform ourselves and others that it’s time to do things differently. Through conversation we can also know that we are doing things OK. We can also come to a sense of “We’re in this together.”

It is much more than ‘just talk’, for it is in and through conversation that we ask the questions that help us work out what is important. Questions that lead us to experiment and take good risks. For if we are to remain alert to opportunities to undertake change for the better we may have to let go of beliefs and patterns that hold us back.

The dance of conversation

The term conversation means interacting with others – and with ourselves – as if in a dance. The word comes from the Latin ‘con versare’ – ‘to turn’ or ‘to dance’ together. Conversation is entering a dance about something, together.

It is not ‘just idle chat.’ It is about coming together for a purpose. It is about talking and listening with an endpoint, an intent, in mind. It is about sharing stories that build respect. It is about a way for people to know that their contribution and ideas are valued. It is a way of building healthy relationships that are at the heart of a happy place.

Yet not all of us are born with dancing skills. Just as dance requires learning and development of skills, so does conversation. This may even apply more in situations where differences of belief and attitude are likely to come to the surface. Such conversations may at times be emotionally gripping, charged and personally challenging. At these dramatic moments, the art of conversational dance will be tested.

Read more and see detailed process notes in the Green Street resource Clues on Conversations – a guide for people facilitating conversations and events for a sustainable 21st Century.


By Howard Nielsen, with recognition to the Reconciliation Council, Dr Alan Stewart, Rodney Vlais, Robert Theobold, Jane Holmes-a Court and Richard Mochelle.
Author’s note: This piece is edited from a guide produced over 20 years ago and it appears that we have gone full circle to see that conversations may truly be a strong foundation for the way ahead for our planet.