Talking is hard sometimes. Maybe this can help.

The Choreography of Conversations

Austin Wu
Austin Wu
Mar 4, 2018 · Unlisted

A conversation is like a dance. In both, people express meaning with their mind and body to the other participants. And like the movements of a dance, the words of a conversation only carry part of their meaning — the rest comes from factors hidden below, like the histories, presences, and identities of those participating.

Today I want to talk about these hidden factors, and how they create the choreography of conversations. This choreography defines so much of what we take from conversations, yet is often unnoticed.

Think of the last conversation you had. How much of the meaning conveyed came from just the words, versus from an understanding of participants and your backgrounds? Of body languages and settings? Even if it was about something seemingly impersonal, say the weather, they still played a bigger role than you probably realized.

I thought about this choreography a lot last weekend, while I was facilitating Common Ground. Common Ground is a retreat on identity and difference by, of, and for Duke students. During the retreat we frequently have large (50+ people) conversations where people share about their identities and experiences.

Whenever people ask me about Common Ground, I share how the most valuable thing about it has been learning about how people process and converse about these issues. And while this specific takeaway is neither the goal of Common Ground nor what I would expect others to gain from it, it is what I have valued the most.

Conversations on identity and personal experiences, such as those on Common Ground, are particularly affected by this choreography. And while their dynamics are easier to notice in one-on-one conversations, as their size and complexity increase these hidden aspects become very hard to follow.

With that being said, I wanted to share what I have observed on Common Ground about the choreography of conversations. And while I saw much of this on the retreat, it is applicable to conversations regardless of topic or setting.

You should care about this because whether or not you realize it, every conversation has a goal. This choreography almost always affects how well you and the other participants of a conversation can accomplish this goal. These goals are often implicit and unrealized, such as to share information, be validated, or make connections. But when they’re not accomplished, whether we’re aware of them or not, we notice. We leave conversations confused, tense, frustrated, or otherwise unsatisfied.

Movement and Space

Let’s talk about how we move and inhabit space during conversations. Far from trivial, what we do with our bodies actually has a huge impact in the way we communicate. Anthropologist and cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald has proposed that the precursor to spoken language is mimetic skill, which I’ll define as remembering and voluntarily performing body movements in order to convey meaning.

Today, the importance of movement and space has remained. Most noticeable in conversations is body language. Whether or not you realize it, the crossing of your arms, the straightness of your back, and the shuffling of your feet say something to each other participant.

You convey how present you are in the conversation, and thus how much you care about it, through your body language.

Conversely, non-verbal responses also carry great weight. Explicit responses like snapping convey different meanings to different people; affirmation to some, while agreement to others. Note how depending on the receiver the same response can mean very different things!

Other non-verbal responses happen unconsciously. Pay attention to whether you find yourself nodding, frowning, or crossing your arms when others speak. These can convey support, contempt, or other opinions you may not want revealed then and there. And even if you don’t notice these responses in others, or particularly care about them, rest assured that speakers and other engaged listeners do.

Be aware of how much physical space you occupy. Are you sitting up straight, puffing up your chest, or just a large person? Whatever the reason may be, your words will likely be more assertive and dominant than someone who is smaller. While this factor isn’t as easily changed, factoring it into how you process conversations is still very valuable.

Be cognizant also of those occupying the space around you and their movement. You’ll quickly realize there is as much said without words as there is with — all you have to do is look.

Contour

The contour of a conversation describes the path of topics and speakers it has taken. This is where the conversation has been, and where it is going.

Contour of Topic

Contour of topic is how each point is contextualized within the sequence of other points already made. Relevant contour extends to the current conversation’s beginning, but oftentimes also to previous conversations. Understanding contour of topic is crucial to communicating clearly within the context of this specific conversation.

When you speak, the earlier points of the conversation are the foundation you build your points on, whether you agree with them or not. If someone has described a term differently than you would, and you use that term to make a point, you must acknowledge the difference in definition or your message will be jumbled.

This is especially prevalent with abstract terms like racism, diversity, and success, of which almost everyone has their own definition for. Conversations without this awareness often become two sides arguing the same thing, without realizing they’re actually agreeing.

This awareness is also crucial to changing topics productively. Often times changes in topic are too abrupt and can make the previous speaker feel ignored. After all, people speak to be heard, so it’s crucial to acknowledge that even if you’re trying to change the topic.

Especially if people are speaking on topics they are often ignored on or rarely share, it’s important to be aware of how what you’re saying relates to the last comment. To these speakers, even if everyone was listening, switching topics without acknowledging the last point feels like you’re ignoring them.

So when changing the topic, consider acknowledging the last statement by saying you heard it and how it made you feel. Even that is better than nothing. And if you really must move on to the next topic, even something as small as thanking them for sharing is better than nothing. Honestly, it probably will make you think more intentionally about what was said.

Contour of Speakers

Contour of speaker is contour of topic’s even less noticed but equally important sibling. This is who has been talking and how long they have spoken for. Have the same people been talking? What are their identities and experiences?

Unlike the physical space we discussed above, contour of speaker describes how speakers take up conversational space. Conversational space is what people remember as the substance of a conversation. This means it’s both the points made by speakers and the perspectives and identities they bring.

This is important because when few or similar people do the majority of the talking, they fill the conversational space with just their perspectives. This makes it hard for other perspectives to come into the discussion, which often snowballs into a conversation of very few or very similar perspectives.

For example, if we’re discussing sports and the first four speakers are basketball players, it’s less likely that the experiences of soccer, hockey, and curling will come up. That might not seem like a big deal, but if you change the analogy to feminism, white women, and women of color, you see how important perspectives can rapidly get lost.

Conversations that only include a few different perspectives are conversations in which people feel left out, unheard, or misunderstood.

Rhythm

The rhythm of a conversation is often completely unnoticed but has a huge impact. Rhythm is literally the rate at which sound is made and words are said. And while there are many different aspects of rhythm, I want to focus on how silence shows up in conversations. Silence between speakers, for example, is powerful and can greatly improve the quality of conversations.

For listeners the silence between speakers often forces us to think about what was just said. This is especially important for listeners who were busy contemplating what they wanted to say instead of actually listening. Silence can act as a forcing function to make listeners stop and actually think about what actually was said. Even better, the next speaker might now incorporate the last speaker’s points in their comments.

Likewise, for speakers silence conveys that people are actually listening to what they just said and are processing it. Similarly a lack of silence, in the form of an immediate next speaker, can feel like nobody has listened to what they said.

Silence also shows up within speech. A rhythm of silence within someone’s speaking is also extremely powerful — think of people who say a lot with very few words. I particularly admire my friends Brian and Sinclair for this ability. They can both use just a few words to convey great and nuanced meaning. It’s powerful, and it’s awesome.

If I had to guess, what makes their words so powerful are the generous pauses that punctuate their words, which give us time to appreciate each word as we hear it.

Levels

The levels of a conversation are extremely important to keep track of. Levels are the assumptions people enter conversations with, such as their goals for the conversation, what they expect to hear, and how specifically they’re thinking about the topic.

On Common Ground, we discuss how different behaviors affect people. Most comments end up being similar to one of three levels: acknowledgment, accountability, or action. These both categorize what people are trying to convey, and how their words are perceived.

The acknowledgment category is when someone shares an experience, and the next speaker acknowledges it in their response. For example: I hear what you’re saying, and I can only imagine what that feels like. Thanks for sharing.

The accountability category is when someone shares an experience, and the next speaker acknowledges both the experience and takes accountability for their involvement in it. For example: Thanks for sharing. I have assumed X about your group before, and I realize how that’s wrong.

The action category is when someone shares an experience, and the next speaker responds by suggesting actions or solutions. For example: Thanks for sharing. I think what we need to do is should spend more time attending events put on by Y group in order to support them.

Levels matter because people make comments at one level, but often times listeners hear it and respond on a different level. That’s often hurtful or frustrating to the original speaker, as it feels like they’re not heard. It’s the equivalent of me sharing about harassment based on my racial identity, but hearing a response of Yeah, like you all just need more media representation. You’re not wrong, but sometimes I just want to be heard.

Each participant in a conversation has a level in mind for where the conversation is and where it is going. While I’m not saying everyone must be on the same level, I do believe it is crucial for everyone to at least be aware that different participants are at different levels. Without that, people will feel ignored, conversations will seem unproductive, and many people will feel unsatisfied.

Vulnerability

The last topic I want to touch on is the importance of vulnerability in conversations, especially when discussing identities or experiences.

I define vulnerability as the proximity between your feelings and what you express them as. The closer your words are to how you really feel, the more vulnerable you are. Vulnerability is not necessarily sharing things you are self-conscious, ashamed, or afraid of. It is content neutral and describes the relationship between your feelings and how you express them.

Vulnerability is something that people care about in all conversations, regardless of whether or not it’s explicitly recognized. People can generally feel when what you’re saying is unfiltered and raw, and sharing with vulnerability makes us feel and seem human. Furthermore, people who are vulnerable in conversations almost always want others to match their vulnerability.

One particularly effective way to be vulnerable is to use “I” statements. These are statements in which you speak from your own perspective, instead of “we”, “my group”, or “my family”.

Note that I statements aren’t just for sounding vulnerable. I’m a firm believer that saying things makes them feel more real, and I statements are no different. Using I statements forces you to be more honest with yourself and come to terms with your beliefs. They actually are more vulnerable — which is why they’re often difficult to use.

It’s precisely this forcing function that makes I statements powerful to listeners. They sound more vulnerable because they are more vulnerable. People hear that authenticity and they value it as a sign you are

One other behavior to call out is how people avoid vulnerability — by intellectualizing the conversation. I’ve found that Duke students, in particular, intellectualize to withdraw from vulnerability and sharing their opinions.

Intellectualizing is stripping real people and specifically yourself out of a comment — such as by discussing policy, concepts, or theory. If you find yourself speaking without mentioning individual people and their actions, you’re probably intellectualizing. And while intellectualization has its place in some conversations, it’s important to be aware of whether you’re intellectualizing to contribute or just to avoid vulnerability.

Who Cares?

So why does any of this matter?

In truth, often times it might not. For a lot of conversations, these factors are largely irrelevant compared to the conversation’s points themselves. But in many larger conversations, you’ll find that these factors are in play.

I learned to be aware of these factors during conversations on Common Ground. Each morning, participants state their conversation goals for the day in the form of community norms. As a facilitator, I think about these factors and how they can help the group accomplish their goals as they converse.

Ultimately, these factors are mechanisms by which certain behaviors convey meaning in conversations. If they help accomplish your conversation’s goals, then I hope this is useful. But if not, then don’t sweat it — these are by no means the “correct” way to have conversations.

Wow, so my one week break quickly stretched to three, because of how busy February was. Well I’m back — hoping I can get back to the weekly schedule.

Unlisted

Austin Wu

Written by

Austin Wu

I make stuff, teach stuff, and write stuff. | Associate Product Manager @Google

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