The Further Adventures of Conversation Man Episode 5: The science of the conversational dance

The Science of the Conversational Dance

Dr John Reed spent 8 years at Oxford University (amassing 3 social science degrees including a Ph.D).  He worked for several years with historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin (author of the likes of ‘An Intimate History of Humanity’ and ‘Conversation’) on conversation projects in health centres, shopping centers, high streets, art galleries, libraries, choirs, and even IKEA to see if it could be turned into a cultural and community hub. 

At Say It Now, John is our ‘conversationalist in residence’. Raising the bar in our understanding and thinking of the immense power conversation has on the human experience in relation to life, the universe and everything in between.

In this realm he’s no longer Dr. John Reed, in this world, he’s…Conversation Man!

Howdy fellow Conversationalists! This month I’ve been reading an interesting book called ‘Talk, The Science of Conversation’ by an academic ‘conversation analyst’ called Elizabeth Stokoe. And I thought I’d discuss her major findings in relation to some real life conversations that I (or people I know) have had recently.

Stokoe’s methods, and those of the discipline of ‘conversational analysis’, are extremely fine grained ways to examine, and try to create generalisations from, real life conversations. There’s too much detail to go into it all here, but the analytic emphasis is on ‘turn taking’ between participants, and the way people build sequences of turns, transition from one turn or sequence to another, and open or resolve (or don’t resolve) the whole thing. With every pause, word, silence, umm, arghh, stress, tone etc. picked over for its significance, or otherwise.

Stokoe uses the metaphor of the ‘conversational race track’, although she doesn’t greatly elaborate on this notion, but reading her work made me think that perhaps a better metaphor is ‘the dance’. As after all where and how one finds one’s dance partner(s), what greetings and openings one employs, what kind of a dance one embarks upon, with what form and function, and whether you pull it off with great aplomb or end up in a pile on the floor is all rather like having a conversation. And what underlies much of Stokoe’s analysis, following this metaphor, is that empirically speaking there are established ways to successfully negotiate ‘a dance of whatever kind, and also to mess it up.

In her final chapter Stokoe discusses her ‘5 ways to have better conversations’, based on her many years of empirical analysis of real life conversations, which I’ll summarise and discuss as a way into it all:

1. Don’t build rapport

It’s great to have rapport with someone, but if you are trying to build it by and large it ends up feeling forced, or inappropriate, and you end up having the opposite effect. Part of which is trying, in the opening moves of a conversation, to be too pally with someone you don’t know, chucking in their name, and misplaced greetings and ‘how are yous’, which become awkward. As Stokoe points out saying someone’s name isn’t automatically endearing to anyone, as in many conversational scenarios their name is the least important bit of information, and often using the person’s name in conversation is a summons to attention or action, not a way to build rapport.

A good example of this was a recent conversation that a SayItNow colleague had on the phone with a stranger who was trying to sell them something. The salespersons opening gambit being ‘Hello, Charlie!’, ‘How was your weekend!’ as if they were best pals, Charlie’s response being to put the phone down. As after all even if what the chap was selling might in the end have been of interest Charlie already knows his name and also how his weekend was, and this wasn’t exactly a social call even if the sales guy seemed to think it might be.

2. Really listen

Being a ‘good listener’ is a standard part of being a good conversationalist, but what does that mean in practice? Stokoe suggests that there are two main ways in which people mess up listening to the other person and thereby end up derailing the conversation. The first is not listening properly to information in a conversation, which then either creates confusion or alienation later on as the other person starts to wonder what is going on. The second is not listening properly with regard to the action that the other person is trying to manifest, or resolve, in a conversation. Which leaves people feeling misunderstood with regard to what it is they want or need from this interaction.

Even though I’m Conversation Man I fear that I was guilty of not listening properly on a recent telephone chat with my Mum. It was partly because she rang me while I was semi doing something on my laptop, but rather than give her my full attention I vaguely carried on with it. And while I got the gist of what she was on about it’s quite possible I missed some of the details (information) and also didn’t sound or feel particularly involved (action). She thereby hanging up pretty soon after she’d got whatever information she was after, as it probably wasn’t a very fulfilling conversational experience.

3. Check your entitlement  

Most conversations at some point involve making a ‘request’ of someone else, onthe whole to do something but this can also involve in effect asking them to be something. Sometimes this request is part of the conversation itself, in the sense of who has to put more effort into the conversation, but it may also be an action external to the conversation. Problems often start to arise in life, and inconversation, when one party tends to place the burden of what amounts to work unfairly on the other party’s shoulders. We thereby all need to be aware of what work we are asking others to do in conversation and beyond it and whether we are entitled to do so, or whether in fact we are just being lazy or power hungry.

I recently had a conversation at a house party with an attractive young woman I’d  not met before who was friendly, a bit drunk, possibly single and it turned out lived  nearby. We got on fine in a burgeoning fashion, and I ended up walking her home in  a platonic fashion. But there was one moment where I asked her too many  questions, in the manner of a bit of an interrogation, and she felt pressurised and  wandered off for a bit. Which, with hindsight, could be seen as a problem of entitlement related to gender, and sexuality, as due to fancying her a bit I was probably overdoing it and in effect over-burdening her with conversational work in relation to herself which she didn’t want to entertain.

4. Change one word  

The particular words, or word, we use in a conversation can change the entire  outcome. Stokoe gives examples of changing ‘any’ to ‘some’ when asking about  further medical concerns, or changing ‘interested’ to ‘willing’ with regard to  participation in mediation, or changing ‘talk’ to ‘speak’ in negotiations with the  suicidal.

She also mentions an experiment where Santa changed his question to children about presents from ‘get’ to ‘give’, which subsequently made them more likely to be generous. An experiment which a SatItNow colleague also tried recently on his son,where it also worked, as his son became less fixated on just what he wanted andstarted thinking more about his siblings’ desires (which may well have also helped him develop or consider his own). So words, and even a particular word, can make a big difference.

5. Bust the myths  

Stokoe argues that the industries of pop psychology, communication skills and self help have propagated unhelpful and often erroneous myths about how to have a good conversation. The chief ones being the ‘good listener’ (who doesn’t in fact really listen), the ‘rapport builder’ (who in fact fails to create rapport), anoveremphasis on body language (which isn’t in fact as important as the words), and often baseless ideas about how to ‘talk to women’ (or men) or some other category of person. Instead Stokoe suggests various ways, from empirical analysis, to have better conversations (or at least to avoid failure):

a) Don’t be a ‘first mover’  

A first mover is someone who tries to get on the front foot in a conversation by  lobbing in an often passive-aggressive (or sometimes just aggressive) conversational  hand grenade in terms of form and or / function, either subtly or less subtly, which  the other person then has to deal with. It tends to create tension, and work, for the  other participant and is often the preserve of the coward who then hides behind the  passive-aggressive smoke screen they’ve created. It is best, Stokoe argues, to avoid  being a ‘first mover’ and instead, in one’s first turn, to embody the kind of form and  function which one truly desires.

Unless of course one’s aim in a conversation is in effect to be a kind of conversational terrorist, sowing minor mayhem and dis-ease. A good recent example of such was a conversation with my neighbour, whom I know well. Who half waythrough a perfectly normal chat on the street happened to lob in a needless and in essence pointless bit of ‘banter’ which was in effect doing me down, as if he weresome kind of authority on everything including myself. He thereby becoming a ‘first mover’ who also needed to ‘check his entitlement’ and re-consider his methods of ‘building rapport’.

b) Don’t be a mis-greeter or recalibrator  

A mis-greeter is someone who greets one in an off hand, lazy or disinterested fashion thereby setting the conversation off on the wrong foot from the beginning. The recalibrator is a form of mis-greeter, but one who suddenly realises they’ve made a mistake by being off with their greeting, usually because they realise the person is of higher status than they first thought, and tries to change tack.

My aforementioned neighbour also happened to be a minor mis-greeter in the very same conversation, greeting me with a slightly off-ish ‘Ahh… John…’. As if he were somehow disappointed not so much to see me, but rather as if I’d let him down somehow, or life had let him down somehow. Which I hadn’t particularly, making him also something of a ‘first mover’ in that I now had to try to decipher (or not) what was going on.

c) Open up slots for your conversation partner to do what they want to do, close  down slots for conflict or misalignment  

Both of these relate to turn taking in conversation, and related control. We’ve  probably all talked to people who either keep steering a conversation in the singular  direction they want it to go, or otherwise go out of their way to open up the  possibility of conflict or derailment. But either approach tends to fail to create a  useful, or interesting, conversation.

He didn’t do it in the aforementioned conversation, but my neighbour often has a habit, after initial greetings, of launching into an elongated monologue about all the details of his last few days in the manner of an ‘update’ or ‘download’. Leaving one with rather little space, or opportunity, to relate to what he’s saying. Which can leave one feeling a bit like a conversational lamp post that a dog has just pissed on.

d) Don’t ask people you don’t know ‘how they are doing today’  

The other side of which is asking people you do know more than ‘how they are doing  today’. I.e. make your opening questions appropriate to who you are talking to. A  lesson which the above cold caller could do with observing, as could I when I started  to interrogate the attractive young woman I’d never met before.

e) Don’t be a ‘recompleter’  

A recompleter is someone who keeps going back over a conversational turn, thereby  hogging the conversational dance floor and not allowing the other person into the  conversation at all. Often a recompleter will keep answering their own, or your,  question over and over again, thereby in effect shutting you out of the conversation.

One could argue that when my neighbour bangs on about himself he’s being a form  of recompleter, as in essence he keeps on answering ‘how are you?’ or ‘what have  you been up to?’ over and over again, ad nauseam.

At any rate conversation is, ultimately, one might argue, an art. But Stokoe’s science  of conversation, whilst it might not make you a scintillating conversationalist, does  give one some useful, empirically backed, pointers. Particularly with regard to what  not to do in a conversation. As whilst becoming the Torvill and Dean of the  conversational dance floor may need years of training and talent, it seems that  many of us are still, in some respects, in beginner’s conversational dance class.

Yours, Conversation Man

p.s. a good conversation is after all a journey, with others. And so if you’ve got any  thoughts about, or stimulated by, any of the above, or there’s a topic or question  raised you’d like to hear more about, or there’s something going on which you feel is  relevant, do email me at . See you in episode 6.