Talk | Elizabeth Stokoe

Summary of: Talk: The Science of Conversation
By: Elizabeth Stokoe


Are you ready to unravel the complexities of human conversation and sharpen your communication skills? Embark on this journey through ‘Talk: The Science of Conversation’ by Elizabeth Stokoe as you discover the significance of conversational turns, the power of initial inquiries, the role of pauses and filler words, the impact of body language, and the effectiveness of choice architecture in your everyday interactions. Improve not only your ability to express yourself and build rapport but also enhance your experience with service industries and your ability to overcome challenges in making and accepting offers.

The Art of Turn-Taking in Conversations

Conversations are like projects that involve completing conversational tasks through a series of turns. A turn refers to a grammatically coherent unit of talk that is followed by specific non-verbal cues. Turns are organized in adjacency pairs, and conversation essentially involves turn-taking. However, turn-taking is not as simple as it sounds, and it can give rise to common conversational problems. The end of a turn is a potential conversational minefield as misread cues can create an impression that you’re not listening. Moreover, some turns have an artificial ending that invites short responses rather than lengthy anecdotes. Talking out of turn can also create a poor conversational impression. By understanding the art of turn-taking, one can master the skill and have smoother conversations.

The Purpose of Initial Inquiries

Initial inquiries have become so ingrained in our daily conversations that they feel automatic. While they may not be information-seeking questions, they serve a purpose in building rapport with our conversational partner. However, in service industries, like retail, initial inquiries can backfire and create a negative impression. Salespeople can use the initial inquiry in a genuine way by using it out of sequence. Forgoing or insincerely using initial inquiries can create a poor impression.

Unspoken Language in Conversations

Conversational pauses, filler words like “um” and “oh,” and even the use of “so” reveal a lot about the speaker and the direction of the conversation. These seemingly meaningless words and moments actually serve as clues to understanding the true intentions of the speaker. Contrary to popular belief, pauses in speech generally indicate a forthcoming dispreferred response rather than the speaker processing information. Similarly, “um” can signify unexpected information or a conversation turn that wasn’t anticipated. “Oh” indicates new information has been processed, while “so” is a signpost signaling the speaker’s desired direction for the conversation. Understanding these unspoken language cues is crucial for interpreting conversations accurately.

The Misconception of Body Language

Many believe that the majority of communication is made up of body language, but this is a common misconception. The 93 percent statistic is taken out of context from a 1971 study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, which was limited in scope. While non-verbal cues play a significant role in face-to-face communication, gestures can be just as ambiguous as words. The truth is that we communicate in a multi-modal manner, both verbally and non-verbally, and it’s best to appraise body language in this same context. So, while words may not always speak louder than actions, they can significantly impact the actions and responses we produce.

Words Matter

The words we use and how we present choices can shape our outcomes. This concept, known as choice architecture, can be applied to everyday conversations.

Hotels have long tried to encourage guests to reuse towels with signs in their bathrooms. However, appeals to the environment have proven ineffective. A 2007 US study demonstrated that a simple change to the wording of the sign could result in substantial behavioral changes. When the sign appeals to social norms by stating “Most guests choose to reuse their towels,” guests are more likely to follow suit.

The process of designing the ways in which choices are presented to others, known as choice architecture, demonstrates the power of words. If you find yourself met with a “no” when asking for something, a change in the choice architecture of your request might be all you need to get a “yes.”

A study on doctor-patient communication found that asking “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” resulted in only 50 percent of patients bringing up another issue. However, when doctors used the phrase “Is there some other issue you’d like to address?,” 90 percent of patients responded positively. The use of “any” is often associated with negativity and inviting negative responses, while “some” has the opposite effect.

Switching one word can make a significant difference, emphasizing the importance of mindful communication. The questions we use and how we frame them can shape outcomes and the level of service we receive. As such, the importance of choice architecture in everyday conversations should not be underestimated.

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