The Art of Conversation

There is an art to brilliant conversation. It is more than each person talking in turn. It is more than showing courtesy to your interlocutor, pausing when needed, and listening just as much as you speak. Real conversations, the ones that are truly meaningful, allow occasional interruptions of one speaker by another, to interject additional relevant facts, to help with a word choice, and in all other ways to support the better flow of information between and among speakers.


Many of us who are socially awkward have been led to believe that if only we master turn taking, everything will get better. Of course, we all know people who insist on giving a monologue or a speech to everyone they meet, and that can be annoying. It certainly isn’t a conversation. This is a problem that can and should be worked on with someone who has trouble with social interaction.

However, I have also seen the converse problem. There are some people who are so well schooled in turn taking, that they entirely forget the purpose of a conversation. I have watched some people who are socially intact but otherwise cognitively impaired take turns talking at each other. They very courteously pause to let the other person speak, but what they say after the other person has spoken in no way relates to what he said. Or it only very tangentially relates, as in sharing a general topic, but having nothing to do with the point that person just made.

A true conversation is a dialogue in which the participants are collaborating on creating a coherent text. In all my writing, and in my favorite books that I read as a child, that is the whole point of conversation. Certainly, in order to do this, some social housekeeping is required. We can’t all speak at the same time, because then nobody will be heard. But turn taking is only a very minor concern, one that can at times yield to the greater needs of the conversational flow. It is all right — and even required — to speak out of turn when you have an important point to make. The purpose of the conversation is to exchange information and build a coherent understanding of the topic. The point is not just to socially interact with whoever happens to be there.

Now, when I was a child, we practiced such conversations at home. The text of the conversation was dictated by the general topic and the specific issue being explored, not by the importance of the people involved. The very smallest person at the table was allowed to interject a relevant point, even speaking out of turn. But  a person who was ranked socially higher had better be silent if he or she had nothing to contribute to the conversation. It was not about rank. It was not about civility or conviviality. It was about content.

When I began to put conversations such as this into my fiction, I encountered some critics who said that the conversations were contrived, because real people don’t talk like that. Only characters in nineteenth century books do.

In fact, it took me years until I met someone outside my own family with whom it was possible to have coherent conversations. He did not agree with me about much, but our conversations made nice, coherent texts, which when written down looked a lot like a dialogue from a book. I have always valued the ability of people to have such conversations, and as rare as that quality in a person is, I think it is an ideal to which we should all aspire.

If autistics need more schooling in turn taking, I think most neurotypicals should also undergo training in conversational coherence. They should be taught that turn taking and social rank are not everything and that ultimately, if you have nothing to contribute to a conversation, you should remain silent. This also applies to publishing professional papers and books in which no actual content is present.

There is an art to conversation. The partners in a dialogue are contributing to a text. The value of the contribution depends on the needs of the text, not on the rank of the contributor.  Coherence is a quality in conversation that needs to be upheld, and it should yield to the lesser value of turn taking.



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About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.
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9 Responses to The Art of Conversation

  1. Sweetbearies says:

    Another thing that I see some people dois pretend to listen to what someone is saying, and then reveal when he has left the room what a bore this individual is. Years ago I stepped on an elevator with a friend, and a man started telling us something, which I thought was quite interesting about the building. My friend nodded and made a friendly response to him, but once he got off she said “What the heck was he talking about?! I just pretended to listen to what he was saying to be polite” This exchange was quite revealing because I realized over time she did that even with people who were supposedly her friends as well.

    • Aya Katz says:

      Yes, I’ve seen that kind of thing, too. Politeness such as hers is really more offensive to me than the behavior of someone who spontaneously shares some information that I am not necessarily that interested in.

      • Sweetbearies says:

        Yes, it is sort of what made me realize she was not a friend. Conversations where great as long as they were about what she wanted or liked, but we always “needed to change the subject” when it got on a topic that was not about her. I did not realize this at first, but over time I noticed it. In the end I made the mistake of pointing out I felt we were not really good friends anymore, and she cut the friendship off completely. I could have just gone along with it I guess, but I realized over time we were just not really having real conversations.

        • Aya Katz says:

          Well, if the only topic that interested her was one about herself she must have had very limited conversational ability. It was no great loss to you, I would imagine, when she cut off the contact.

          • Sweetbearies says:

            At first it did seem like a loss because even though I realized over time conversations were mostly about her, we had been friends that did things together for a few years. So I was a bit sad when the friendship ended, but I realized it had never been as deep as I thought it was. The thing was if we could not have a real conversation about something that sort of bothered me without her making it about her, and then deciding I was no longer a good friend because I pointed something out that bothered me, it was not worth it. Real friendships should not be that much work.

  2. Kathy says:

    Interesting viewpoint on conversation, Aya. I was raised in a hierarchal family-type structure; you only spoke when spoken to and only the adults in the room had a conversation. It was very belittling, even humiliating when one of us kids felt like we had something to say.
    I love the art of conversation and I am sometimes not as ‘present’ as I should be during a conversation with other people. I may have 4 other scenarios from the day still playing in my head, but I certainly try.
    I’ve learned as a person who works from home that I have to pay special attention on phone calls, because conversation is even more difficult when you can’t see a person’s body language or facial expressions. Combine that with the other distractions you can have around your home and it makes it even more challenging.
    And Sweetbearies, I had a friend like that too. She was 5 years older than me (58) and all she ever wanted to do was talk about how damaged she was by her father when he molested her as a child (she left home when she was 16). I could only sympathize the first year of our relationship, but after that, it was exhausting as I realized she had become an emotional leech and just couldn’t live in the ‘present’ with me and just constantly talked about her abuse. I felt bad for awhile after we parted too because we’re taught that as ‘friends’, we are supposed to be empathetic and listen to our friends’ problems. But it needs to be a two-way street. 😉

    • Aya Katz says:

      Hi, Kathy. I always enjoy conversations with you, and I think your comment here adds greatly to the discussion.

      Many of my friends growing up had homes such as you describe, and so maybe that is why they did not get the conversational practice they needed when they were little. I was shocked once to be invited to dinner in a family where the children and the parents acted as if they belonged to different species and just did not speak to one another at all at the table. And these were teen-aged children, not toddlers.

      I think the non-verbal cues do help to disambiguate meanings in a face-to-face conversation, but sometimes people have such an over-reliance on those cues that they are lost when it is a phone call and completely stumped by texting. I have one friend who simply cannot express herself in writing and feels that it is not a real conversation unless she can hear a voice. But I have another friend who refuses to speak on the phone and is not able to converse in person, but is quite articulate and even insightful while texting. I think each of us tends to over-rely on the medium of communication that we are best at, and everyone could use some practice with the other, less comfortable media.

      I can relate to what you said about your friend. People who focus on something bad that happened to them a long time ago and can’t talk about anything else ever can be impossible to reach. We all have scars from something and handicaps and hurdles, but we can’t get over them unless we occasionally focus on something greater than ourselves or at least different from ourselves.

  3. Kathy says:

    Those are interesting insights into your friends, Aya. It certainly makes you step back and gaze in wonder at how different we all are. One of the tricks I’ve learned in my career is to learn what form of communication works best with the various people on my projects. For example, person A prefers email, person B prefers a phone call, person C prefers that I send him an instant message to his queue.
    When we have something critical going on, these strategies can be invaluable.

    As to the way I was raised, I found that it really impacted my adult life for years. My ability to adapt to conversation was even more hindered by the fact that I joined the military straight out of high school. You can imagine how that went! Because I was so used to the authoritarian approach, I would often not speak in my adult circles until I was spoken to by the perceived “leader” in the room (based upon *my* perception).
    It took me quite a while to break out of this mode and learn that I too can speak with people in the room! But it is an ongoing work-in-progress. 🙂

    • Aya Katz says:

      Hi, Kathy. It sounds like you know how to use the best communication strategy for each person in your work life, which is very useful.

      I don’t want to give the wrong impression about my family of origin. It was plenty authoritarian in the sense that there was a command structure and rules that had to be obeyed, and one did not argue with a direct order. It was not a democracy — more like a benevolent dictatorship. It really confuses me sometimes when I will ask a grown person if they want to do something, and they have to go home and have a family pow-wow about it in which even the kids get a vote.

      But the divergence in our style of communication from other families was that we recognized the difference between a command and a conversation. Direct commands were always very plain: “Do this.” Or “Don’t do this.” There was no pretense that a command was a question: “Would you like to do this?” It drove me crazy when people outside our family tried to be polite and couch commands as questions. However, in a conversation at the dinner table, we were exploring a subject and looking for the truth, and there everybody was equal.

      I have never been in the military, so I don’t know to what extent the situation there allows for the distinction between command issues and just points of information.

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