The Power Of Conversation

If you’ve ever anticipated a wonderful evening out with your partner, a long evening filled with intimate conversation, only to have things go awry, then you’ve experienced the power of conversation. Writing for the American Psychological Association, Zara Abrams explores the intricacies of this fundamental aspect of human communication. “Conversations don’t always go well,” she says. “Some lead to conflict, harm, or resentment — others never even start because we fear discomfort or rejection. And because of their inherent complexity, conversations have long remained a mystery to psychologists.”

Fortunately, thanks to advances in technology, more and more psychologists are researching the complexity and power of conversation in new and enlightening ways. Abrams focuses on four key areas where research is offering new insights.

“Why we avoid conversations.” Talking to your friends and loved ones is expected, although a positive outcome of a conversation with a loved one is not always a sure thing. (See the next paragraph below — Making conversations click.) Talking to strangers, on the other hand, is often a problem for some people. Why? Simply put, they think that talking with strangers will be awkward, especially a conversation that goes beyond a shallow question such as, Have you been here before? But recent research indicates that having a deeper discussion is actually easier. Citing research by Michael Kardas, Ph.D. and others, Abrams says “Pre- and post-surveys indicated that deep conversations felt less awkward and led to more connectedness and happiness than participants expected.” Simply knowing this fact can help people be more open to moving from how are you questions to ones with more substance.  

“Making conversations click.” Research indicates that asking questions is tremendously important to make conversations fulfilling and effective. But there are caveats to this statement. Asking a question and then proceeding to answer it yourself is an almost sure way to alienate your partner. The key is the other half of speaking, and that is listening. It’s imperative to listen to your partner after you’ve asked a question and not simply be thinking of your next question. Equally important, a follow-up question must relate to what your partner just said — and not be entirely unrelated.

Another interesting aspect of listening involves timing. Citing recent research, Abrams says, “Effective listening tends to lead to short gaps during conversations, which is linked to higher satisfaction among participants… Short pauses between speakers are linked with more feelings of connectedness… Long pauses between strangers are awkward, but between friends, they can actually signal connectedness — for instance, if one friend shares something personal and the other takes a moment to reflect before answering.”

“Navigating conflict.” Disagreements can occur between romantic partners, extended family, friends, business associates — in short, everyone. Fortunately, managing conflict involves similar techniques no matter who you’re disagreeing with. Abrams points to a method that researchers have described using the acronym HEAR: hedging, emphasizing agreement, acknowledging and reframing.

Hedging is simply a way to soften your point so that’s it’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it statement. Saying we should probably be developing alternate energy sources leaves room for discussion. Saying we should ban all oil drilling immediately invites conflict if your partner doesn’t completely agree.

Emphasizing agreement involves focusing on something — an end goal — that almost anyone would agree with: I’m sure you’d agree we both want a clean environment.

Acknowledgment takes a page straight out of couples therapy. Restate what your partner has just said so they know you’re listening: If I understand you correctly, or You just said.

Reframing is a way to keep things upbeat. As Abrams writes, “reframing statements using positive emotion words and avoiding negation words (such as ‘no,’ ‘don’t,’ and ‘won’t’) can help — instead of ‘I hate it when people interrupt me,’ try ‘I really appreciate it when people let me finish my sentences.’

“New horizons for conversation science.” Traditional methods of analyzing communication have involved audio and video recordings. New technology is opening up new avenues. Citing recent research, Abrams says that “Natural language processing is a major boon for conversation scientists because it can analyze lengthy transcripts to find patterns and associations.” But this a new frontier. Natural language processing — which is currently used to analyze written documents — needs development to apply it to conversations.

For now, conversation remains an art, albeit with proven methods of helping people increase their skill as conversational artists.