Why Walking Works

Thinking, talking, and walking are inextricably linked through history. It is only a recent idea that we meet around tables, seated in chairs.



1          BACKGROUND

Recently, sparked by a variety of inputs[1]—I have been using ‘walking and talking’ as a regular part of various change management / personal development workshops, as well as spruiking the idea to colleagues and friends. Based on this experience and the views of others, I have no doubt that this simple technique is an important addition to enhancing communication—useful both to people like me organising various workshop sessions and to managers and others for themselves.

As mentioned in the acknowledgements, late last year my wife Pamela Kinnear, started using ‘walk and talk’ as a method for infromal performance management conversations with her senior reports. Her view—and the reaction of colleagues—has been overwhelmingly that such conversations are easier, more engaged and more robust than similar conversations sitting in an office.

In this post I want to describe a couple of ways I have used this method and then try to offer a proper explanation (beyond common sense) of why I think it works.

Example 1: I have developed a reflection technique that includes important elements of self disclosure and colleague feedback as to increase self-awareness. As I explain below, adapting this to a walking mode has enhanced its efficacy.

Briefly, the idea is that each person in a workshop makes notes on a story they will tell about a period of conflict in interpersonal relations in the workplace. The idea is to cover off on events, motivations, feelings etc. I divide the groups into groups of 3. In each group a person tells their story to two colleagues who listen and, apart from clarifications, don’t say a great deal. In the original model, when the story is finished, the teller turns her back and listens to the two colleagues discuss and analyse what they heard, what they infer, etc.  At the end of the analysis the teller turns back, thanks her colleagues and the second person takes his turn. This process—which is an adaptation of Dave Snowden’s ‘ritual dissent’ method’—is powerful and effective.

Now (weather permitting) I send the groups walking, achieving the ‘back turning’ simply by the teller taking a couple of steps ahead and continuing the walk, able to hear the other two talk behind their back. The feedback I am receiving is again very positive. In particular, in one group I occasionally need to include the local group coordinator (SQNLDR Richard Wolf) to make the numbers work properly. Richard has participated in both the conventional sitting and talking and the newer walking and talking method and has no doubt to the extra value the latter brings.

Example 2: In a recent 2 day residential workshop in Sydney for 16 senior managers from across Australia and NZ, the purpose of which was to solve a commercial crisis in their joint enterprise, both mornings started with a ‘walking peleton’.   Each day groups of 8 set off to walk along the beautiful harbour side walk in a peleton model that rotated their pairings every 5 or 6 minutes.

The peleton idea I owe to Pamela Kinnear who asked how one could combine walking and talking with ‘speed dating’—another technique which is easily adapted to workshops. After some discussion, and drawing on her cycling experience, she suggested a peloton method: at regular intervals people swap positions in the parallel columns, hence talking in turn with many different partners.

Despite some prototype hiccups (a simple peloton runs into a repetition of partners before it exhausts all logically possible pairs) this was a remarkable success. It implicitly modelled what we were looking for–an innovative method in search of their innovative idea—and succeeded in building rapport, cooperation and methods for solving the joint problems.

No doubt, most people who have read thus far are not hugely surprised by this idea. Most of us have experienced good conversations while strolling or hiking with friends and colleagues. My question is exactly WHY this works because the better we understand the process the more we can hone the method and tweak it to various uses.



There has been a deal of interest in recent times about walking and its link to the workplace (etc.) and a variety of different goals have been suggested as to why we should walk more. Noting that the idea has a reputable pedigree that stretches back to (e.g.) Greeks like Aristotle who walked and talked with their students, a variety of explanations has been offered as to why it might work and what it might achieve.

First up, we need to see that one powerful force supporting this idea is bio-physical. An influential TED talk by Nilhofer Merchant makes this point succinctly. See http://www.ted.com/talks/nilofer_merchant_got_a_meeting_take_a_walk?language=en

If as Merchant pithily puts it “Sitting is the new smoking” because of its negative effects on health, getting out to walk is desirable because it allows meetings to occur free of the curse of sitting. This view tends to ignore, however, the possibility that there is something about the process of walking which not only improves health but also improves the talk itself. The suggestion is that talking in this way is better—more frank, more relaxed, more creative and so on. This is argued at the Feet First site and other places. For the impact on creativity (individual and joint) see: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/april/walking-vs-sitting-042414.html

Therefore, walking is good for us and we can have good conversations doing it. Thus, the purely physical exercise dimension may be helpful (oxygen levels in the brain, the beautiful outdoors etc., etc.) but clearly it is not a necessary condition.

The commonest explanation offered ad hoc seems to be that there is something about not being eyeball to eyeball and walking side by side that enhances rapport and thus is important.

So, I’ve; been puzzling over what exactly is at work here and now I’ll offer an explanation.


David Gurteen in his newsletter and a personal communication drew my attention to several important sources. The one I find most important is this piece by Daniel Goleman, a succinct summary of some key themes in his recent book Focus:

Researchers at Harvard have identified the three ingredients that can give a conversation, a presentation, even a negotiation, a personal touch. The three signs:

  • First, there’s full mutual attention. That sounds simple, but has become increasingly rare in this age of constant digital distraction. We are all plugged in to devices that pull our attention away from the person we’re with, and impose some other agenda on the moment. There was an article in the Harvard Business Review on the “human moment,” admonishing us to put down our smartphones, turn away from digital monitors, and pay full attention to our colleagues and friends.
  • Second, there’s physical synchrony. This seems to happen naturally once two people pay continuous attention. If you watched a video of two people with rapport talking, and turned off the sound to just observe how their bodies move, it would look as though they had been choreographed. This is not imitation, but rather a physical responsiveness: as one body moves this way, the other moves that way – at the right time and in a harmonious fashion. It’s a nonverbal conversation affirming simpatico.
  • The third sign: it feels good. Rapport’s emotional signs are pleasant emotions. Such rapport often occurs during routines people perform together at work, like joking baristas in a bustling coffee joint. Being in an upbeat mood, researchers find, indicates a brain state where you can work at your very best: energized, creative, ready for any challenge – in flow. The most obvious signal of good feeling: laughter. linkedin.com/pulse/20141016181050-117825785-the-chemistry-of-connection


It will be immediately obvious that walking together may facilitate these three aspects. Attention to each other is easier when walking (although I strongly advise my walkers not to take mobile phones to ensure this); synchrony in this case arises more from walking at the same pace than from observing and mimicking (intentionally or not) the other person’s body posture, etc.; while rapport seems enhanced in walking more than in a sitting conversation.

So one could stop the explanation at this point and say that walking facilitates attention, synchrony and rapport, that is why is ‘works’ and, since it confers a health benefit too, let’s stop there and just encourage it.



That, however, has not been a satisfying stop point for me. So, I have been puzzling away to see if I can say more. I think that a couple of things from cognitive science would help. Let me point to two. First, the work of Simon Garrod and colleagues:

 “…humans are designed for dialogue rather than monologue… Conversations succeed, not because of complex reasoning, but rather because of alignment at seemingly disparate linguistic levels. … the majority of routine social behaviour reflects the operation of … a ‘perception–behaviour expressway’ … we are ‘wired’ in such a way that there are direct links between perception and action across a wide range of social situations.

Simon Garrod and Martin J. Pickering (2004) ‘Why is conversation so easy?’, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences,   Vol.8 No.1 January

This is a general point but, I think, an extremely important one. As I have argued elsewhere in this blog and in my SlideShare presentation on group size and dialogue, (http://www.slideshare.net/stephenkmugford/group-size-dialog-and-high-quality-participation ) conversation in the full sense does not occur in large groups. Moreover, commonly favoured methods of ‘communication’ such as the ubiquitous PPT slide deck with talking head singularly fail to be very effective. Let me then slip a thought in here: why do we think that a conversation in an office, facing one another over a table, is an optimum way to communicate? This is not to say this cannot work but it is to point to a caution.

Whatever else, it is clear that walking along in twos and threes is likely to generate dialogue in the Garrod sense. Without wanting to fall too much into an ‘evolutionary’ argument (too many of which seem to me to be Just So stories) it is not hard to suggest that much of human history centred on hunter-gathering and that context walking and talking together would be a dominant mode for which we have evolved considerable capacity.

Second, this expressway has a neural basis. In a study that is rapidly becoming a citation classic, popping up in footnotes in a myriad of sources, Stephens and his colleagues write:

 “…[a] speaker’s [brain] activity [pattern] is … coupled with the listener’s activity [pattern]. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate.  Moreover, though on average the listener’s brain activity mirrors the speaker’s activity with a delay, we also find areas that exhibit predictive anticipatory responses. We connected the extent of neural coupling to a … measure of story comprehension and find that the greater the anticipatory speaker–listener coupling, the greater the understanding.” [emphasis added.]

Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication Greg J. Stephens et al (2010) Proc. of the National Academy of Sciences of the US. vol. 107, no. 32 p. 14425

I re-examined this study recently. A key element, which I had not fully appreciated at first, is this: the research was based on recorded speech. That is, the listener was not present with the talker and instead listened to recording of the speaker.

How does this matter?

There is a great deal of work around at present on rapport and ‘entrainment’. For example, in Focus Goleman explains a good deal of the mechanisms that build varied kinds of rapport. Cognitive rapport—‘do I get your story?—is different from emotional rapport—‘do I feel your pain?’—and a kind of empathic concern is different again.

In a specialised study of US Supreme Court hearing, Benus and colleagues (Benus, et al (in press) Knowledge Based Systems. “Entrainment, Dominance and Alliance in Supreme Court Hearings”) study the largely unconscious processes that indicate that Justices and counsel are becoming entrained in their thinking and reasoning—as indicated by speech patterns and markers.

So, my speculation with respect to walking is simply this: when people walk and talk they privilege the sound channel—the talk and metalinguistic clues—over the visual cues. In face to face contexts, visual cues come more to the fore and while this may or may not promote entrainment in the bodily sense (I mimic your gestures and posture and vice versa) perhaps it does NOT promote understanding. In Goleman’s terms, it may be that cognitive rapport in particular is enhanced by listening. Walking together seems peculiarly suited to this. As we walk, we scan the environment—pathway, trip hazards, traffic, etc.—in a relatively routine and unconscious way—largely  freeing our conscious processes for talking and listening.

Moreover, there is a distinct possibility that the presence of visual cues may have a negative effect not only in distracting from speech but also in blocking or diverting the speech patterns.

The myriad of books on how to have fierce, crucial, difficult or life changing conversations attest to the fact that such conversations are not easy. Yet in this literature there is little if any attention given to the precise communicative context and the way that non-verbal cues may shape the conversation for better or worse. Reflection, however, reminds us that making and breaking eye contact, noticing facial expressions and so on may all encourage or discourage certain lines of talk. Being side by side as we walk (or in the special case walking ahead) removes this and in so doing seems to offer more gain than loss.

The best-selling author Liane Moriarty puts this nicely in her recent novel Big Little Lies.  Describing conversation between protagonists Jane and Celeste she writes:

Recently, they’d both begun to tentatively open up.It was interesting how you could say things when you were walking that you might not otherwise have said with the pressure of eye contact across a table.

I suggest that this explains how it is that the walk leads to much more open, much more engaged and much ‘deeper’ conversations than we are likely to get sitting round on chairs in an office. (We might also note that the psychotherapeutic tradition with the patient on a couch while the therapist attempts the ‘talking cure’ is not so far removed from the idea here.)

Combine this major benefit with side benefits of exercise and an escape from distractions and I think we can see why this old, tried and trusted technique might be brought back into focus, and purposively deployed, as a major tool for improved communications.


Several people have described a very similar effect of good conversations when driving with a family member, friend or colleague in the car. The commonest example I have come across centres on parents reporting a good conversation with a teenager while driving, something they found both rewarding and unusual. Some added that the known time duration seemed to aid this—the knowledge that it would not “go on and on” encouraging the teenager to open up.

Absent the health benefits of walking, almost everything I have said above applies to a car trip.

Finally, this argument would not be complete without noting that the final bits of the puzzle were located and clicked into the picture in a side by side conversation with Pamela as we drove from Canberra to the coast. It lacked the healthy exercise component but in every other way fit the argument above—freed from any time constraints, sharing the view out of the windows and able to think aloud and let ideas go where they would was simply exhilarating.

[1]  Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to Phil Langdon and colleagues working at the Australian Institute of Police Management who first got me thinking about walking with accounts of the reflective sessions they run in leadership development courses for senior managers. David Gurteen kindly sent me a post which I draw on below . I’m also indebted to my wife, Dr, Pamela Kinnear, who never tires of sharing sociological discussions on these topics and who has incorporated ‘walking meetings’ into her senior management role, especially for performance management purposes. And thanks also to a number of officers of the RAN and RAAF who have cooperated with me by undertaking walking discussions in various courses I run for Navy and Air Force on developing emotional intelligence.



About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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