Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the art of conversation

Confucius said, “When you are in the presence of an exemplary person, you risk making three mistakes. To speak before the appropriate time is called being rash; to fail to speak at the appropriate time is called being evasive; to speak without observing the expression on the person’s face is called being blind.”

Perhaps it is true that you should never meet your heroes. Encounters with them can all too easily turn to disappointment if you become so awed by their presence that you forget everything that you planned to say to them or if they talk so much about themselves that you cannot get a word in edgeways.

The key to striking up a meaningful conversation is to remember that your hero is human as well and has experienced more than their fair share of awkward exchanges during their rise to the top. If you project a sense of quiet and respectful confidence, they will be far more likely to give you the chance to open up than if you shy away from them and punctuate your words with uncomfortable pauses.

The art of conversation has been sorely neglected in our age of ubiquitous connectivity. To rise above the relentless digital noise, take the time to master it.

This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 16 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 16 here.

(1) The term 君子/Jūnzǐ can also be translated as “lord” here. Due to the lack of context it is unclear whether Confucius is referring to someone with political or moral authority.

(2) This is a good example of the importance Confucius attached to immersive ritual practice (禮/lǐ). It is only by adhering to the appropriate conventions that you will be able to achieve the maximum impact and avoid speaking out of turn.

I took this image of the sunrise at Alishan in central Taiwan.




I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.

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Richard Brown

Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.

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