With Valentine's Day fast approaching, and all the Hallmark-induced hysteria that provokes, you may well be feeling like the communications failure and social retreat on show in Spike Jonze's Her is a bit too close for comfort. Or maybe you're just really sick of having dumb conversations with even dumber people.
Well fear not, because the good old-fashioned art of talking to one another in meaningful ways is the focus of the most popular class at Melbourne's The School of Life. Returning after a pop-up summer term last year, the international institution sets down permanent roots on Bourke Street, with three 10-week terms lined up for 2014.
Launched in London in 2008, The School of Life is the brainchild of writer, philosopher and ubiquitous talking head Alain de Botton, and offers innovative life lessons from a wide variety of fascinating teachers on topics as diverse as How To Stay Calm, How to Make Love Last and How Necessary Is a Relationship?
Writer and filmmaker Sofija Stefanovic, whose work has seen her get in amongst cult members, meet folks who claim to be possessed by demons, and Nigerian internet scammers, leads the The School of Life's most in-demand session, How To Have Better Conversations. Having worked with the likes of Myf Warhurst, Lawrence Mooney and Sam Pang, she has a few tips for getting the most out of our daily chat, drawing on talking heads as diverse as ancient philosophers like Cicero to that most modern of oracles, Oprah.
"Often you're in a party and you're talking to someone you're interested in and a lot of people think it's good to start with a quirky opener, but that can also come across a little bit too pushy," Stefanovic says. "It's better to go with something that's not too hard to answer, is a little bit playful and gives the other person a chance to be a bit creative, like 'if you were a superhero, who would you be?' If you ask what books have you been reading, suddenly they're under pressure to say something really clever."
Stefanovic says the key to conversations with our loved ones is respect and an open ear. "We talk a lot about listening to other people and the role of silence in conversation, which doesn't play as important a role in the west as it does in other cultures, like in Japan. Silences, and the pauses in conversation, mean a lot there."
The class also gives hints at how to deal with difficult conversations, like disagreements. "That's the bit I personally find hardest to teach, because I'm not very good with confrontation."
Stefanovic is the first to admit that she doesn't have all the answers and gets just as much from the session as her eager students do, with the whole idea being about opening up and sharing ideas. "The people who come to the class are really curious, generally smart and a bit bookish. They're interested in the world around them and I think that's so important because some of the best conversations I've had have been with people who are outside of my normal circles."
There are no right or wrong answers or gruelling tests either. "You don't get in trouble for not knowing things," Stefanovic says. "Often you leave the class asking more questions than you've come in with. We really encourage people to talk to each other and tell us about themselves and each class takes a different tangent."
Wallflowers may just find the one they can open up to, Stefanovic says. "If you're a shy person, you should give it a go. There are lots of likeminded people and I would be very happy if I could say that two people met each other here one day."
Editor's Note: How To Have Better Conversations has since sold out, so get in quick for other great sessions. We're booking now for How Necessary is a Relationship!
Image Credit: Vogue UK / Rex Features