April 19, 2024

Shaping daily conversations in partnership

We all know conversations that leave us with a bad feeling: We don't feel understood, we don't feel listened to and, somehow, we also feel "put down" without being able to say what it was actually about. The other person probably didn't even raise their voice and no swear words were used. So why are we feeling so bad?

One of the explanations could be that the conversation was one-sided - more of a monologue with an audience than a real dialog and exchange. Here are a few typical situations from everyday life:


This is a typical situation that doesn't only originate from me. Women can do it too. Let's assume you have just read a very interesting article in which you have learned something, e.g. the best way to cook scrambled eggs. Your partner, who has been preparing the egg for years, is standing at the stove and you have nothing better to do than share your newly acquired knowledge in epic detail. Believing you are being helpful; you explain the best way to proceed. Your partner rolls their eyes, keeps their thoughts to themselves and gets on with the scrambled eggs.

A bad day

You had a bad day: Your boss was horrible to you, people can't drive or you read something in the newspaper that upsets you. Now you meet your friend and before they have even said "Good morning", you launch into your tirade. Your friend mutes their ears and waits until your attack is over.

It's wormier in Africa...

A biology student had only prepared for the topic of "worms" because he knows his professor likes to ask about them. In the exam, the first question is about elephants. The student: "The elephant has a trunk. It looks like a worm. The worms are divided into the following classes..." The second question is about lions. The student: "The lion lives in Africa. It is much wormer there than here. The worms are divided into the following classes....” Some people are like this joke. They have a favourite topic that everyone they know avoids as much as possible because they know they won't be able to discuss anything else for hours.

I'm sure you're familiar with these situations (and if not, I'd like to congratulate you on choosing your friends and family). What all these situations have in common is that the conversation becomes one-sided. The reactions of the other person have no meaning for the continuation of the conversation and the other person becomes an audience and is no longer part of the conversation. In a real conversation, we choose the topics together: not necessarily by agreeing on them on a meta-level, but there is a natural flow to how topics are introduced and how the other person reacts to them.

A technical term for this is "turn-taking", i.e. the culturally determined regularities that we can observe in conversations when we observe whose "turn" it is to say something. Here are a few things we can observe:


A pause signals that it is now the other person's turn to speak. In the examples above, there will be few pauses. So, if we want others to perceive us as conversation partners and not be degraded to an audience, it makes sense to observe how we deal with pauses in our conversations. Does the other person have enough time to speak? But be careful - what seems like enough time to us may be too short for the other person. In that case, you might want to talk about it.


There is an interesting twist to conversations that is very common when people get on well. Here is an example:

Paula: "Mrs. Meier is wearing a wonderful dress today! I really like it!"

Lydia: "That's right! This pink with orange is enchanting!"

Paula: "Right, I'll ask her where she got it"

Paula brings up a topic. Lydia confirms it. Paula confirms it again. This three-step process can be observed in many conversations when people subtly agree that the topic that has just been suggested is relevant. When we respond to other people's topic suggestions in this way, they feel acknowledged and like partners in the conversation. You can find the opposite example in many sketches about couple relationships. I'll give you an example to illustrate this:

Maria: "Mrs. Meier is wearing a wonderful dress today! I really like it!"

Paul: "Hmm. Who actually won the soccer match?"

Maria: "Pffffffff"

Small talk

I can already see you rolling your eyes. But read on. We can also observe interesting regularities in small talk that give our conversation partners the feeling that we value them and respect them as partners.

Take the example of a conference. You have just listened to a presentation that was also about bees. You are standing at a table with others and suggest a topic (see above):

You: "Bees are really wonderful animals. Their social life is so exciting."

Person 1: "Yes, I didn't know they had such different roles."

Person 2: "And I also didn't know about the dances they use to communicate."

This is followed by an uncomfortable pause in the conversation, because nobody knows any more.

Person 3 saves the day: "I sometimes wonder if we communicate when we dance! Sometimes it seems that way when I'm salsa dancing."

Person 2: "Oh, you dance salsa too?"

The regularity we can see in functioning conversations is that a common observation (the talk) is shared, the topic is then exhausted and then a new topic comes up, which leads to stories or shared experiences and so on. Again, turn taking is important, the signals that tell us that it is our turn.

With mansplaining, the bad day and the favourite topic monologues, the person speaking forgets the rules of "turn taking" and the other person can do little about it if they don't want to be rude. However, it may help to be aware of the above rules in conversations and to bring them to the attention of the other person at another time if something like this happens frequently and the other person means something to you.

The following questions may be helpful for you to check if your day-to-day conversations are acknowledging and validating to all conversation partners:

- How long are our pauses in conversation?

- How do we know when it is our "turn" to say something?

- How do we choose topics?

- How do we feel about our topics?

- When we succeed in conversations, what is it like?

- What was the last time we had a really good conversation?

- Who did or said what?

- When was it perhaps not so good?

- What could we do differently next time?

I hope you found this little excursion into the science of conversation helpful and useful! If you would like to discuss more, learn about our classes, share insights from your conversation and coaching practice, why not join one of our free meetups and exchanges?

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