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Why we need a talking revolution

The roots of Peter Osborn's passion for creative conversation reach right back to his family upbringing in West London.

I never had a proper conversation with my father. He was a generous, responsible, caring man, and we could always talk about sport or the weather or how to get from A to B. But whenever anything difficult came up – like my grandmother dying or why my mum never left the house (I later found out she was agoraphobic) – the answer would be ‘You don’t want to know about that.’ 

The trouble was, I did want to know about it.

Curiously, the more important a subject was, the more likely it was to be swept under the family carpet. The older I got, the more the frustrated I became with the culture of silence, especially around my mum’s condition. Mental illness in 1950s London, although very common in the wake of the Second World War, was a shameful subject. On top of that, my parents, while coping as best they could with the illness and the stigma, had no experience from their own upbringing of sitting down and talking things through. So my mum and dad, my sister and I were stranded in a kind of conversational desert, which none of us consciously chose or liked.

It would have been good to talk, as they say, but we didn’t know how. Not talking was just how things were. Fears and feelings went unexpressed, stories went untold and questions, if asked at all, went unanswered. Boy, was it dull, not to mention deeply frustrating.

I don’t know, even now, quite what I wanted to talk to my dad about, but looking back I can certainly recognise in my teenage self a need for a level of connection with my parents which, for all their great qualities, we never seemed able achieve.

So I left home, aged sixteen, and almost immediately made a remarkable discovery.

Rick and Min lived with their two young daughters a few doors down from my new place. It was the year when TV went from black-andwhite to colour, and the difference between my family culture and theirs was just as revolutionary.

They told each other things.

They wanted to know what was happening in each other’s lives.

They had rows, and laughed, and fell out and made up.

They had their challenges as a family too, of course, but at least things were expressed – often very colourfully.

Until I met them, I honestly didn’t know that families could be like that. I’d certainly never met one. For all its craziness, there was also something deeply sane about Rick and Min’s house. And I remember thinking, ‘When I have a home and a family, I want it to be like this.’

That happened.

Gayle and I had two children, a boy and girl. We talked a lot together, and listened to what they had to say. While they were growing up, I got the chance to work on a UK-wide project to promote the skills of dialogue in schools. It was perfect for me. I jumped at it – and almost immediately two things became very clear.

First, this not-communicating thing wasn’t limited to just my childhood, my family and the people we knew. There were problems all over – in families, schools, businesses, government, everywhere.

But, second, something practical could be done about it.

Years later, when Gayle was dying of cancer and life was at its hardest, I saw how our family culture of always talking with our son and daughter had helped them; not just to cope with their mum’s illness and death, but to develop into open-minded, wise, well-balanced young adults, comfortable with people and able to deal with life’s challenges in a way that my own upbringing certainly hadn’t prepared me.

It's conversation that makes the difference – creative conversation.

That’s clear to me now, and my purpose in co-founding The Talking Revolution is to encourage everyone to do more of it.