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The Most Important Conversational Skill

Conversation matters according to new research on communication in relationships

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Everyone has experienced those awkward moments when there’s an overly long pause in a conversation, or you’ve inadvertently interrupted the other person. These social gaffes can occur face-to-face, but are far more likely when you’re on the phone, because you can’t read your partner's nonverbal signals of facial expression or body language. Even video chats can be punctuated with uncomfortable silences and the feeling that you’ve spoken too soon, again because you’re not able to take advantage of the cues you would get by being in the room with the other person.

According to University of Groningen’s Namkje Koudenberg and colleagues (2017), these all-too-common conversational hiccups can have serious life consequences. They cite the example of a video call interview with a job applicant. The applicant may get all the questions “right,” but still not get the job because of a lack of conversational flow so that you don’t feel you’ve clicked: “She seems a bit distant or aloof and does not seem very enthusiastic as it takes her some time to respond — or laugh about your jokes” (p. 50). As the authors point out, conversational flow, that sense of clicking with the other person, is essential to developing “a close social connection” (p. 50).

Through the process of “grounding,” the Dutch researchers note that we establish a shared reality with the people in our social world. This process involves validating shared viewpoints, which promotes a sense of identification between conversational partners. They use the term “solidarity” to refer to the emerging sense of “we-ness” that a conversation marked by flow can help establish. Clearly, you’ll be more likely to hire a job applicant or go out on a date with someone when you find the conversation to be easy and natural. You’ll reject a prospective applicant or social partner if you don’t feel connected, because something about the conversation seems off.

In their review of the literature within social psychology, Koudenberg and her collaborators explore the factors that promote conversational flow. By extension, if you take advantage of some of these strategies, your interactions should help you in the grounding process with the people who are important to you.

Let’s begin with the nonverbal components of communication. You can help bond with your conversation partners through such processes as nodding, smiling, and leaning forward, particularly if you take care to mimic the nonverbal behaviors of your conversation partner. In your verbal communication, if you accommodate to the way in which the other person speaks, you can similarly promote the bonding process. At perhaps the most basic level, if you start to speak in the same dialect as the other individual, you reveal that the two of you share a similar social group and, hence, worldview. Perhaps this explains why non-Southerner politicians sometimes fake a drawl if they're trying to win the crowd's liking, and their votes.

Your body participates in the we-ness formation process as well, according to Koudenberg et al. “Behavioral matching” occurs when you adopt the posture of the person to whom you’re speaking. Even more cementing between yourself and the other person occurs if those mirroring moments happen to occur at the same precise moment in time. As they note, “dyads walking down a lane tend to synchronize their steps, and football fans often chant simultaneously.” Getting in sync with the other person’s movements can lead to “blurring of psychological boundaries” (p. 54). You might also work in complementary fashion with the other person, such as joining efforts in lifting a heavy piece of furniture that needs to be moved. As you and the other person heave-ho together, you feel an emotional, as well as physical, sense of coordination.

Taking turns in conversation is the next area that the Groningen researchers investigated. As I noted earlier, both interruptions and long pauses take their toll on your sense of connection with conversation partners. Finding that rhythm with the other individual’s stops and starts is similar to the physical synchronization patterns shown in your body language or actual movements. Even though you may be advised to avoid saying “um” and “yeah” in formal conversation, such interjections can help, Koudenberg argues, to regulate the pace and timing of flow. Indeed, they maintain that flow is one of the most important ways to establish mutual trust and perceived mutual understanding. In a group setting, the same principles hold true. If you’ve ever been in a room with someone who seems to walk all over the other group members during a mutual conversation (and who hasn’t?), you know how disruptive this lack of flow can be to a sense of shared purpose.

Why should conversation flow be so important to promoting feelings of mutuality? One possibility, the Dutch team point out, is that it builds positive feelings between group members, who like each other better when they feel they are communicating on the same wave lengths: “a fluent exchange with another person may be a positive experience because it is so effortless” (p. 58). These interpersonal relationships add up to stronger feeling of connection with the group as a whole.

Conversational flow affects group identity further by regulating social norms within the group. Hugging, kissing, or a simple nod of recognition: which do your various social groups use as forms of greeting? If you’re a hugger and this group is not, you’ll soon learn to refrain from what seems like an overly familiar type of greeting. Using an obscenity in a group that condemns any swearing will also be perceived as deviant and could lead you to be excluded, although you’d quickly realize you need to clean up your act if you want to be part of this particular crowd.

Gestures, word choice, and other elements of communication also signal the status hierarchy within the group. If you’re a new member of a group, or of a lower status than everyone else, you will be less likely to interrupt other people than if you’re at the top of the power structure.

The longer a group has been together, though, the more flow interruptions they can afford to make without threatening either the individuals in the group or the group’s identity. When you’re enjoying lunch with your oldest friends, you’ll be less likely to fuss if someone interrupts you than if you’re cut in on by your sister’s new boyfriend. You and your friends will also be better able to regulate your conversational flow, but violations won’t be disruptive to the solidity of the feelings you have toward each other, unless they happen repeatedly and deliberately, in which case the group may actually be in the early stages of dissolution.

In conclusion, the kind of “micro-characteristics” of dialogue (p. 63) that promote flow can influence everything from feelings that people in a conversation have about each other to the overall sense of identity within a larger group. The subtle signals that you send and receive over the course of your interactions have far larger consequences than you realize. Fulfillment in relationships depends on many factors, not the least of which are these small but impactful interpersonal cues.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Koudenburg, N., Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E. H. (2017). Beyond content of conversation: The role of conversational form in the emergence and regulation of social structure. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(1), 50-71. doi:10.1177/1088868315626022