What Makes a Good Conversation?
Conversation feels unstructured, but it actually takes place according to rules.
Posted March 17, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Conversation isn’t formally taught how writing and speech are, so most of us have to pick up the rules independently.
- Good conversation requires quickly detecting themes across different comments and expressing new ideas that add to these themes.
- Although conversation feels casual and spontaneous, it is a remarkably complex act that takes devoted effort to master.
Conversation is the most commonly occurring type of oral discourse. It is profoundly important in many areas of our lives – romantic relationships, work, business, and casual interactions with neighbors and friends.
It is also an essential ingredient in leadership and diplomacy. It has been said we are ruled by the talking classes. But conversation isn’t taught in school the way writing and speech are, so most of us have to pick up the rules on our own. Which is one reason there is such wide variation in how skilled people are.
Good conversation is truly remarkable. We need to anticipate the information needed by other people, provide enough context for what we say – but not too much – and understand quickly changing subjects and widely different perspectives. Managing all these factors can be difficult, so conversations can often go awry.
After considerable study and analysis of thousands of conversations, what began as descriptive research on naturally occurring conversations can now be considered prescriptive research for what we should do while conversing.
Every conversation has three parts: the opening, the main conversation, and the closing.
Opening a Conversation
To begin, we attract the listener’s attention by offering a simple statement. A request for information (“How’s it going?”) or a simple greeting (“Hello”) or an offer of information (“It’s been a while since we've talked"). The reply is meant to be a stock response. It’s conversationally inappropriate, to be honest about the complications in our lives during the opening.
Young children know how to begin conversations. “You know what?” gets me every time. But when young children are done, they usually just stop and leave. There’s no “Have a nice day” or “Nice talking to you.”
Even the opening can have meaning. In a friendly situation, “What can I do for you?” can turn off the flow before it starts.
After the opening, the conversational interaction is characterized by taking turns – the defining structural conversation feature. With two people, it’s straightforward. With more than two, there are different strategies. The current speaker may select the next person with a direct question or eye contact. If that doesn’t happen, then self-selection takes place. If no one speaks up and there’s a pause (usually no more than five seconds), the current speaker may continue.
Structurally, conversation proceeds through taking turns. Content is a different matter. In good conversations, content follows the Given-New contract.
We select old information and add something new. We take the immediately preceding comment (or one just before that) and provide new information on top of that comment.
Thoreau could have been referring to the given-new contract when he said, “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.”
Given-given is tedious. We need to add something new unless there’s a good reason not to. In psychotherapy, for example, if the therapist wants to reflect on what the client said, a simple paraphrase is useful.
New-new creates a non sequitur. If we don't state or imply something already given, our comment won’t make conversational sense. If someone says, “It’s been unusually warm lately,” and the next person says, “I want a lamb gyro for dinner,” that would be a new-new non sequitur.
With the given-new contract, we usually look for a distinctive feature to comment on. Suppose someone says, “I just got back from Hawaii.” An appropriate response might be, “I went to Hawaii once,” – because going to Hawaii is distinctive. If someone says, “I just checked my work email.” One appropriate response would be, “Did you get anything urgent?” It would be inappropriate to say, “I checked my work email once.”
The idea of a distinctive feature comes from perceptual learning. To distinguish very similar patterns, we look for particular features to tell them apart. In my youth in Iowa, I had a friend with a sheep farm who could individually identify all fifty or so of her sheep.
To me, they were indistinguishable from one another. They looked like sheep. Until I started noticing the shapes of their noses and the sizes of their heads, and then I began seeing the sheep differently.
In conversation, we try to detect distinctive features in the content of what people say so that we can comment on those features.
In good conversations, participants are theme detectors, detecting overlap across comments. Consider the sentence, “Next month, I’m starting a new job as a physical therapy assistant.” That sentence contains three separate ideas:
I’m starting a new job.
The job is physical therapy assistant.
I will start next month.
We can respond to any one of those ideas, thereby defining a new theme. If we say, “Why not wait until next summer?” we emphasize the theme of timing, not the newness of the job or the physical therapy. The response to that question should then address the issue of timing – for example, "If I didn't accept quickly, someone else would have been offered the position." This is how conversations change directions and ultimately go unpredictable places while still flowing along.
Good conversations only have short-term goals and no ultimate destination. In that way, conversing is like driving at night. We can drive safely for hours with our headlights lighting the road only thirty feet in front of us.
We also need to consider memory and contribute quickly to the changing themes. Responding to a comment made 15 minutes earlier doesn't work because that comment is no longer available in short-term memory or immediately accessible long-term memory.
Closing a conversation takes three steps: one of the participants sends out a pre-closing signal, participants come to an agreement to close off the discussion, and the participants close.
Most of us have a variety of pre-closing signals in our repertoire, including a long, drawn-out “Well.” Or “I need to go soon.” Other participants can accept the signal or state a reason for continuing the conversation, possibly with a new topic.
Ignoring a pre-closing signal entirely is a break in the rules of conversation. We may have a friend or relative who doesn't pick up pre-closing signals very well, which can be a problem.
We want to end the conversation, but the other person seems oblivious. For good conversations to continue in the future, that problem needs to be resolved.
Once the pre-closing signal is accepted, the participants go through the closing – which can be a lengthy dance, even though everyone knows the conversation is ending. For a phone conversation between two people, something like this can happen.
I’ll call you on Tuesday. Okay?
We’ll see you then.
To begin a conversation, we should keep in mind an appropriate opening. To proceed with a good conversation, we need to take turns – preferably equal turns – following the given-new contract, looking for distinctive features.
To detect the changing themes of a conversation, we need to focus on the overlap across comments. Unless there’s a good reason, we should not interject something completely new or repeat what’s already been said. We should maintain our attention on immediate comments, not comments made a while ago.
As energy wanes, be aware of sending out or picking up pre-closing signals. We may then decide to close. Interrupting a closing requires a dramatic interruption. “Wait! Did you hear what happened to Logan?” Otherwise, we should go along with the closing.
In keeping with that idea, it’s time to end this research-based conversation analysis.
Hutchby, I, & Wooffitt, R. (2008). Conversation Analysis. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Schank, R.C. (1977). Rules and topics in conversation. Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal. Vol. 1(4), pp. 421-441. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1207/s15516709cog0104_3