Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Four Characteristics of Effective Conversations

These relatively easy habits can help to sustain strong relationships.

(c) endotune/fotosearch
Source: (c) endotune/fotosearch

Ever been talking about something important to you with someone you care about and found the discussion frustrating instead of fruitful? Negative energy can then cast a shadow over your efforts to build a shared understanding.

In fact, collaborative problem-solving conversations require skills. Strong listening skills are essential. Sprinkling in positivity via appreciation, warm smiles, and affectionate comments helps. So does the essential ability to keep your emotional tone in the calm zone. If the tone of a dialogue heats up and anger erupts, the dialogue flips from collaborative to adversarial, and progress is likely to come to an immediate halt.

In addition, however, the following excerpt from my book on the skills for successful relationships highlights four less commonly known vital habits. All four of what I call The Four S's are easy enough to do. Yet when any of the four are missing, effectiveness can easily become diminished.

Effective dialogue generally has four important characteristics: symmetry, short segments, specifics, and summary.


Symmetry in dialogue refers to the balance of how much each partner talks. Are you each getting equal airtime? When one participant does most of the talking, this asymmetry or lack of balance tends to become annoying to one or both of you. The silent partner typically tires of only listening, while the talker can feel overburdened. Usually, both would prefer more equal give and take.

Different rates of speech and levels of voice volume can erode symmetry as well. The faster or louder partner can easily begin taking up more airtime. The slower-talking or softer-voiced one can have trouble getting the floor.

A more insidious kind of asymmetry occurs when one partner's opinions count more than the other's. One person's input may carry more sway because their style of expression is more vigorous. One viewpoint may tend to get lost because it is expressed more tentatively.

If either partner fairly consistently predominates or evaporates, modifying the pattern will be helpful. The dialogue will feel more productive, and at the same time, the relationship overall is likely to feel more positive.

Short segments

Short segments refer to how much is said at one time. In effective dialogue, each speaker generally offers brief comments rather than trying to say too much at once. Monologues, by contrast, take away more than they add to the discussion.

Listening is a lot like eating. To take in what you hear, small bites work better than large chunks. To keep the bites small enough, either the speaker needs to pause regularly, expecting to take turns talking and listening, or the listener needs to interrupt. In this case, interruptions can be helpful.

Long monologues lose data. A listener can only pick up one or two points at a time and can respond to only one. All but the first of the multiple points in a longer monologue go by the wayside.

Monologues also drain the energy from a conversation Although occasional story-telling can be interesting, briefer comments with frequent interchanges back and forth stimulate a higher energy level, making talking together more fun as well as more effective for building understandings.

To keep your speech segments brief enough, aim to make just one point each time you speak. Let others respond, and then add your next point.

If you hear yourself saying, "Don't interrupt me," think again. Thank them instead. You probably need interruptions from the person you are speaking with to help you to chunk your thoughts into pieces of a length that your listener can digest.


Detailing your underlying concerns becomes vital when you are trying to solve a problem together. To make a shared decision, resolve a disagreement, or clean up after an upset, explaining specifically what your concerns are increases the likelihood that the two of you will reach a positive outcome, a plan of action that works for both of you.

Asking questions to understand the specifics of your partner's underlying concerns as well adds all the more to your odds of success.


Summaries of what each of you has said seldom feel necessary when the purpose of a conversation is amusement or chatting—for instance, just filling each other in on the day's events. Summaries do, however, prove powerfully useful when attempting to solve together a specific dilemma. "So it sounds like your main concerns are x, y, and z. And for me, my concerns are q, r, s, t, and u."

Summaries prevent information loss. They consolidate the information put forth thus far and assure that your data has entered the shared information pool. If any input has been omitted or lost, the summary gives you a second chance to voice it.

Summaries also increase the likelihood that the concerns of both of you will be taken seriously as you begin to generate solutions, that is, plans of action for moving forward.

From The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage, pages 87 to 91. Discussed further in The Power of Two Workbook.

Dialogue patterns create attachment patterns

in close and enjoyable relationships, the four S's facilitate satisfying dialogue. That's vitally important because talking together is one of the main ways that couples create a feeling of coupleness. Talking together also enables couples to solve problems together and to resolve their differences.

In sum, strong habits of utilizing the 4 S's significantly increase the likelihood that a relationship will be a winner.