Public & Private Conversations

By Chris Chittenden

We are all aware of the conversations we have with others. It is obvious when we speak and we hear what others say to us. However, do you realise that whenever we have a conversation with another person there is not one but three conversations taking place?

The first conversation is the one that we both speak and hear and we term that our "public" conversation. The other two conversations are happening silently in each individual's head and we term these our "private" conversations. These are the conversations that we have with ourselves and, in essence, they are conversations that help us make sense of the "public" conversation.

The distinction of "public" and "private" conversations may seem trivial to some but we claim that it can be critical in helping us lead a more fulfilling life. Let us look at the value of these distinctions in a bit more depth.

To start with human beings constantly engage in "public" conversations and through those conversations we make commitments upon which we base our future. For example, if I promise to meet my friend for a coffee tomorrow at a certain place and time, then we both hopefully take actions that will see us show up at the same place at the appointed time. We make this commitment through a "public" conversation that the two of us will have had. The value of the distinction lies in recognising that we do not make our commitment based solely on our "public" conversation but rather on our "private" one. In other words, we act on the basis of our listening to our "private" conversation not our "public" one. It is only when the two coincide that we are committed to act as we have publicly indicated. In essence, this is the basis of our assessment of another's sincerity, what we see is one of the FOUR fundamental assessments of trust - sincerity, competence, reliability and involvement. When we believe that a person's "private" and "public" conversations are aligned then we believe they are sincere.

Another interesting aspect of "private" conversations is that they are a rich stream of information telling us about ourselves. Unfortunately, many people do not realise that they have "private" conversations. For those people, their "private" conversations are transparent. What these people miss out on is recognising how these conversations tell us about our preferences, our prejudices, our values, our emotions and how we truly assess ourselves and the world. All we have to do to find out more about ourselves is recognise that we have these conversations and reflect on what they mean. In other words, exploring our "private" conversations is the key to self-awareness.

Bringing our "private" conversations into the "public" domain can be a powerful way of engaging in meaningful conversations but we need to be conscious of being selective in regard to what aspects of our "private" speak we wish to make public. If we are not careful, we will find that we will be saying things that damage rather than enhance our relationships.

As a way of engaging your "private" conversations, why not try this exercise. The next time you are in a meeting, on your notepad draw a line down the middle of the page and on the left hand side write "Private" and on the right "Public". As you go through the meeting, jot down some notes about what you say in your "private" and "public" conversations.

After the meeting, reflect on what you have written down and check for any disparities that might have shown up. You will almost certainly find that there is a lot more in the left hand column than the right. You will also find some clues to your preferences etc in your private conversations and this might give you some clues as to how you might be showing up to others. If you would like to follow up this exercise with us, send us an e-mail at and we will be happy to explore this with you.

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© 2001 Chris Chittenden