‘IT’S so important,” my friend Faith Liddell told me on a chance encounter in Edinburgh soon after the Brexit referendum, “that we keep the conversations going.”.

But what conversations, with whom and about what? Besides isn’t conversation itself under threat?

Eye contact, listening and not shouting are the requirements for genuine conversation. It sounds straightforward, yet these abilities seem beyond the most powerful man on the planet.

Likewise there is another essential ingredient of all good conversations – curiosity. Was it not partly his sense of curiosity that made Donal Trump’s predecessor so appealing?

Recent books, such as Stephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art and Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, show concern with public and private toxicity in the contemporary, and constantly changing, digital world.

Turkle’s book is a response to teachers’ observations of a steep decline in empathy among American high school students. She demonstrates the dangers of an erosion of conversation in the personal sphere, because of course conversation is personal.

It is, she writes “the most human – and humanising thing we do... It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood”.

For the past 18 months I have been developing a project that is now coming to fruition as A Year of Conversation 2019. As part of the process I have been enjoying conversations about conversation, mainly with those involved in the arts – writers, artists, organisers. We have explored questions like what is a conversation, and what makes a good conversation?

Conversation, in its widest sense, is at the heart of many cultural/literary practices and a project that celebrates, initiates and explores conversation has the capacity to enrich many lives. The arts, with their concerns for communication, curiosity and empathy, are uniquely qualified to offer the space(s) for stimulation, engagement and reflection that are vital for conversation.

Through such conversations, a number of themes emerged: translation as conversation, conversation as a social good (emphasising early years and inter-generational work), conversation within and across art forms and borders, conversation in a digital world and conversation as event.

These are a shorthand to show the breadth of what A Year of Conversation will offer. But there is a creativity and a generosity within Scotland’s cultural sector that cannot be limited by shorthand.

Produced by the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust, with the widely experienced Faith Liddell as advisor, the project has the active partnership of many of Scotland’s major cultural organisations and launches nationally with a day-long event on February 16 called The Art of Conversation hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

There will be special events and focused conversations, but importantly, this is something in which everyone can be involved. It is said that the three most effective ways that strangers can meet are through singing, dancing and eating. Are these conversational opportunities not embedded in the ceilidh at the heart of our culture?

And there are many opportunities within our own living rooms.

Pope Francis advocates what he calls “The Culture of Encounter”. It’s an idea to re-engage within a fractured society – between communities, age groups and all those who have little contact with others.

In Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, Theodore Zeldin writes: “The 21st century needs a new ambition, to develop not talk but conversation, which does change people. Real conversation catches fire... It involves risk. It’s an adventure in which we agree to cook the world together and make it taste less bitter.”

We agree and, as Faith observed, conversation is our project’s methodology and its outcome.