The power of conversation

I recently attended a seminar where Andrew Copson (Chief Executive of Humanist UK) and Michael Reiss (Professor of Science Education at University College London) were ‘in conversation’ about ‘meaning’. The topic was fascinating. They talked about different understandings of meaning and meaningful. They even asked, ‘How does a giraffe find meaning? Or perhaps what is a meaningful life for a giraffe?! However, what interested me even more than the topic, was the format. The format of holding a conversation.

The etymology of the word conversation comes from the Latin conversatio which means to live with or keep company with. There is a sense of longevity where conversation takes time. In addition, the Old French word means ‘manner of conducting oneself in the world’ or ‘a way of life’. It shows that conversation is about interacting with others, it is more than presenting a position.

Conversation is about exchange; an exchange of ideas and knowledge. Conversation necessities listening and learning from the other person. Andrew and Michael honoured one another, they responded and truly exchanged ideas rather than just waiting for the other person to finish. The conversation was not about winning an argument, it was about understanding, becoming more informed. There is a sense of vulnerability when holding a conversation, particularly in front of others.  You can’t prepare much beforehand; you have to be willing to respond to the unexpected. In conversation you step into the unknown, it requires courage. This is very powerful.

Another occasion this week where conversation was utilised was at a seminar for funders of religious education. At this event grantees and funders took part in facilitated conversations to show why projects had been funded and the impact they had. Grantees and funders openly talked about the value of joint funding, the challenges and successes of particular projects and what they had learnt. Conversation facilitates sharing, relationship building and connectivity. It seems to me that we need more conversation, particularly in the RE community. Conversations about how we can work together better; how we can support each other. This I believe will lead to collegiality. My PhD thesis talked about creating space, encountering others and listening for wisdom in terms of pedagogic principles for RE, but what if we were to use these principles in the wider RE professional community to underpin conversation? What might that look like?

For some time, I have advocated an understanding of the highly contentious phrase ‘being religiously literate’ as the ability to hold balanced and well-informed conversations about religion and worldviews. Thankyou Andrew and Michael for exemplifying this for me. If the study of religion and worldviews led to this kind of conversation in classrooms what a transformative step that would be. Imagine what potential impact there might be on our communities and society.

With thanks to:

Andrew Copson
Michael Reiss
Independent Schools Religious Studies Association 2019 Conference
Horizons Reimagined Funders Seminar 2019

My PhD thesis ‘A Pedagogy of Embrace’ is available here:



Kathryn Wright Chief Executive Officer, Culham St Gabriel’s Trust @kathrynfenlodge

See all posts by Dr Kathryn Wright