Collaborative conversation

A productive, collaborative conversation follows what we could call a symphonic style (after Greek "to sound together"), in which the speeches of participants interleave, or alternate constructively with each other, building toward at least some shared goals.

A novel solution to a nuanced problem emerges most effectively when many participants can each play at least a small role in creating it, with their views building upon each other in a fine-grained way.

Productively alternating topics and speakers depends on participants having a joint set of desired outcomes for the conversation - a shared communicative project - and on knowing how to manage speakership, the privilege of holding the floor and speaking at that moment.

In the symphonic style, the structures of several speeches interact intimately in a complex melding or entanglement, so that details presented in more than one speech can "triangulate", leading to interesting discoveries or modifications.

That makes long, uninterruptible speeches impractical, and it also makes uncontrolled interruptions highly disruptive. Because few conversationalists have the skills to manage speakership, the interleaving, symphonic style is quite rare (at least in American culture). Most conversations follow a competitive style.

In a group competitive style, partipants present their speeches to the group for judgment. Each participant tries to make the "winning" speech. The best is chosen (usually implicitly) based on whatever criteria happen to prevail in the group.

Participants in a competitive-style discussion are mainly interested in persuading others that their own view is the fittest. They're less concerned with finding ways to make their views intermingle with the views of others.

The competitive style is simpler, and that's one reason that it's the most common. It has several drawbacks, however.

The views of the most persuasive or influential members naturally tend to win, which might not be the desired result if the group is seeking to innovate.

Competitive discussions often lead to one-sided conclusions, and are prone to being blindsided by groupthink. Such discussions aren't true collaboration. They are only as intelligent as the most persuasive voice.

They also tend to be noisier or even hostile, as participants vie against each other to have the winning opinion. Of course, cultural context sometimes requires a veiled forms of aggression instead of naked confrontation.

The symphonic and competitive styles lead to conversational rhythms that are quite different. In the competitive style, each contestant takes a turn while others wait impatiently for their turn or while they scrutinize their opponents' arguments for weaknesses.

The competitive style is played like a jousting tournament, whereas the symphonic style is more like basketball, with team players passing the ball snappily back and forth as they move toward a shared goal.

Listening anxiety has especially negative effects when a group is trying to work collaboratively, because it tends to interfere with the traffic flow, or the intelligent alternation of speakers and topics in a conversation.

Characteristics of the interleaving style

The competitive style is simpler. That's probably why it's more common. An interleaving conversation requires greater skill. In fact, it requires abilities and habits that many people have never even witnessed in action.

The following are a few of those habits and skills.

Uses shorter speeches: The interleaving style requires each participant to contribute incrementally to a discussion, adding coherently to what previous speakers have said.

Conversation isn't just "serial speechmaking". Points should build on each other. Conversations must have dialogue coherence, so that what one speaker says follows sensibly from what previous speakers have said.

Each speaker's statements become input for what the next speaker will say.

Special skill is needed to make a point in few words. The speaker has to derive the essence of the point, and to show listeners at a glance how the essential details fit together.

The competitive conversational style, in contrast, encourages participants to hold the floor for as long as they can, knowing that they may not get another chance to win their point or to preempt opposing views.

Unfortunately, long speeches provoke more long speeches, as speakers feel that by the time they get the floor again, they may have lost their opportunity to make a point.

A common symptom of competitive discussions is that they take longer than planned, and run out of time before the stated objectives have been met.

Feeds back the essence: Effective collaboration relies on tight feedback loops. Speakers should frequently say something like, "This is what I believe you're saying." They then provide an essential summary of the co-conversationalists views.

The speaker offers the summary in the spirit of asking to be corrected if the articulation doesn't resonate with the co-conversationalists as being essentially correct.

The mark of a skilled collaborative interlocutor is how clearly and persuasively he or she can articulate the views of others, especially of those with whom they disagree.

Summarizes points of agreement: Although participants generally agree more than disagree, they naturally focus on points of disagreement. That makes sense. Those points are where the work remains.

However, if participants aren't clear on their foundation for agreement, they easily misconstrue the intent of the discussion. A collaborative discussion co-creates ideas that participants can align with, even if they don't perfectly agree.

By regularly summarizing points of agreement, participants clarify the context in which to bring their remaining differences into sharper focus.

One of the most crucial skills for listening is the ability to summarize. This skill is generally considered to be for speaking.

A mindful listener summarizes what the speaker is saying, and feeds that information back to the speaker, if appropriate, to find out whether his or her understanding is accurate.

Listens while speaking: This is a relatively rare skill. Most speakers become completely immersed in their own speech, and pay little attention to what their listeners may wish to say, or how they're responding to the conversation.

The interleaving style of discourse requires that the speaker watch for signs that the listener may wish to respond to a point, and to be willing to yield the floor temporarily to the listener.

Puts points in parking: When you yield the floor, you have to be able to remember your point until you have another chance to pick it up again.

That requires a certain mental dexterity. Some people avoid interruptions because they don't feel they have the capacity to hold the information in memory. They're afraid they'll lose it.

Of course, practice strengthens this use of memory. It gets stronger with use and degrades with disuse. The competitive style causes people to lose it.

Jotting down a word or to as a reminder may work as a stopgap measure until memory skills are strengthened.

Modifies points on the fly: Not only must you remember what you intended to say after yielding "speakership" to a co-conversationalist, you must be able to incorporate your co-conversationalist's comments when you take the floor again.

Some speakers lack that nimbleness. When they resume their speech, they continue with their point without taking the listener's intervening comments into consideration.

A symphonic, interleaving discourse is not a serial monologue. Symphonic participants all play a part in the same "conversational project." In a monologue, each pushes forward a separate project.

Anatomy of an interruption

The most common and obvious concrete obstacle to conversational effectiveness is the interruption.

Careful observation of interruptions shows that they can take many forms, and that they can be more complex than just cutting off a speaker in mid-sentence.

Below are a few principal types of interruptions.

Onset interruptions: This type of interruption occurs at the onset, or start-up of another speaker's talk.

The interrupting speaker begins talking after another speaker has non-verbally signaled the intention to speak, but before actually producing meaningful talk.

Speakers usually produce preparatory, or pre-talk. That may consist of words that have no intrinsic meaning but that indicate that the speaker wishes to take a turn. It may take the form of a verbal hedge, such as "ah", or it may just be a slightly perceptible intake of air.

If one speaker talks while another speaker is just preparing to speak, the speaker who is preparing to speak will perceive the other speaker as as interrupting.

Observant listeners might notice that a speaker's body tenses slightly just before the onset of vocalization, or that the hands move toward the positions of gestures. These are signs that the speaker has taken the floor, even if he or she has not yet produced meaningful speech.

If speakers aren't watching for body language, those signs can easily be overlooked. That happens especially when speakers focus intensely on their own arguments rather than on each other.

The onset interruption is common with speakers who have an animated speaking style. Such speakers tend to start their talk at the soonest possible time.

Onset interruptions can move a conversation toward the competitive style by forcing speakers to be "quick on the draw," as if the conversation were a pistol duel, exacerbating listening anxiety.

Pausal interruptions: An interruption can occur when a speaker takes a pause without meaning to relinquish speakership.

Sometimes pauses occur during one speaker's talk. That pause is attributed to the speaker. The speaker will not expect to lose the speakership during that pause.

If another speaker comes in at that point, it will be interpreted as an interruption, and may raise the tension in the discussion.

A pause that occurs during a talk is said to be attributed to a speaker. A pause occurs between turns, separating the talk of one speaker from another's, is called a switching pause.

A speaker who is unmindful of another speaker's intentions may interpret an attributed pause as a switching pause, and begin speaking before the other speaker has finished the talk.

Many factors cause speakers to vary in how long they tend to pause during talk, such as how much time they need for finding their words and formulate phrases, how they structure their thoughts, whether they prefer to give listeners a chance to think, and so on.

As a result, each speaker has a natural rhythm, which is part of the prosody of their speech; that is, its musicality.

Speakers who have incompatible speech rhythms are prone to interrupting each other, as speakers with shorter, tighter speech styles will tend to take the floor during the elliptical pauses in the longer speeches of others.

Wrap-up interruptions: A wrap-up interruption happens when a speaker steps into another speaker's turn while the first speaker is about to close but has not yet given up speakership.

Most speakers signal that they're nearing the end of their turn by using pre-close talk. Pre-close talk can be fairly sophisticated and often depend on listeners understanding the flow of an argument.

Listeners who are eager to take the floor will look at pre-close language as a sign that it is acceptable for them to start their turn early. The result will be that the one speaker's talk will overlap, or interrupt, another's.

Here are some common examples of pre-close talk:

- Speaker moves the topic back to the topic that started the conversation flow.

- Speaker's voice moves to a less affirmative rhythm and pitch.

- Speaker makes gestures or eye contact with the next designated speaker.

If a listener starts a turn while the speaker is still in closing, the interruption may prevent the speaker from finishing the wrap-up comments or from suggesting a direction for the conversation.

The result may be that the interrupted speaker may feel crowded or pushed by the person interrupting. The interruption may feel like aggression, although it may actually just be due to lack of mindfulness.

Logical interruptions: More complex interruptions take place when a speaker interferes with the logical or rhetorical flow of a discussion.

This class of interruptions break conversational coherence, or the basic principle that in smooth, collaborative dialogue, each speaker's talk builds upon the talk of the previous speaker, in order to fulfill a joint communicative project.

We usually think of interruptions as occurring when one speaker's talk overlaps or precludes that of another. However, that isn't the only way interruptions can occur.

If a speaker completely disregards what a previous speaker has said, then the speaker who disregards is interrupting, even if no overlapping or simultaneous talk occurs.

A speaker may disagree with the previous speaker, but the previous speaker's contribution to the conversation must be acknowledged. The second speaker should confirm any points of agreement, highlight any disagreement, or make some other gesture indicating that the first speaker's point was taken.

If the second speaker just returns to a point made prior to the previous speaker, without any acknowledgement of the previous speaker, then that is a logical interruption.

Some statements constrain what types of statements may follow. For example, a question, either direct or implied, must be followed immediately by a proposed answer to that question, a request for clarification.

In most discussions, an answer is expected to be adjacent, or immediately following a question.

A speaker may propose deferring an answer to the question until later, but the question must at least be acknowledged.

A logical interruption occurs if speakers fail to respect adjacency of questions with answers in a discussion.

Passive interruptions: A passive interruption occurs when a speaker fails to offer a listener the floor in order to modify or respond to a point that the speaker has just made

As we've seen, not all interruptions involve speaking in another speaker's turn space.

A more complete understanding shows that an interruption is any speech act that interferes with coherence in the production of a shared conversational project.

A common cause of passive interruptions is that the speaker overlooks clues in the listener's body language which imply that the listener might wish to interleave with the speaker.

Another cause of passive interruptions is that the speaker is fixated on a particular idea.

If you sense that a person needs to speak without interruption, the non-interleaving style, tell the person explicitly: "I'm going to be quiet and listen to you. Take as long as you need."

Another type of overlapping interruption is not meant to be an interruption at all. That is a latch, which occurs when listeners speak along with the Current Speaker, reiterating or emphasizing the speaker's point.

A latch usually comes at the close of another speaker's turn, and is usually meant as a gesture of solidarity with the speaker.

Some speakers may fail to understand the latch as an affirmation. Some may even read it as an interruption, which isn't the intention of the listener. Whether a latch is perceived as a warm gesture or as an interruption is probably a matter of cultural background.

Simultaneous talking, or when one speaker talks over another, is certainly distracting and counter-productive, but it's really just one of the most elementary issues to be resolved.

Some groups use a talking stick to help solve that problem. Talking sticks were allegedly used by Native Americans to indicate the current speaker.

The person who holds the talking stick holds the floor, and the rest of the group gives that speaker undivided attention until the stick is passed to the next speaker.

Although the talking stick might help a group rise above the undisciplined free-for-all where speakers talk over each other, a talking-stick-mediated conversation still amounts to an intermediate stage, at best, on the road to truly collaborative discourse.

Normal conversations respect dialogue coherence, meaning that each turn relates to the turns of prior speakers in such a way that the entire dialogue makes sense, or coheres.

However, each speaker brings to the dialogue a conversational project, which has to do with what that speaker wants to get out of the conversation.

Dialogue coherence is possible only if the conversational projects of all the speakers can play together to support a shared project.

We consider two axes of dialogue coherence: whether the listener accepts the speaker or not, and whether the listener either extends the listener's assertion or qualifies or contradicts it.

By considering those two axes we observe four modes of coherence:

- yes-and: Yes, what you've said has merit, and I would like to add to it.

- yes-but: Yes, what you've said has merit, but I would like to change part of it.

- no-and: No, I don't agree with what you've said, and I would like to offer a completely different opinion.

- no-but: No, I don't agree with what you've said, but I'll offer no other opinion.

Those alternatives are listed in order of diminishing conversational coherence, with yes-and being the most coherent and collaborative, and no-but the least.

Another type of passive interruption occurs when the speaker overrides a listener's startup, rather than offering to lend the floor to the listener for an interleaving comment.

Clearly this view of turn-switching is more complex than many speakers are accustomed to practicing. Certain "traffic rules" can give some helpful structure.

One practical set of traffic rules revolve around the management of contexts. When a speaker yields the floor to a listener to respond to a point, the context of what was being articulate by the speaker who yielded the floor will remain the highest level context until the group explicitly decides to shift it to a different topic.

In other words, although the speaker has yielded the floor to a listener, that second speaker now has the responsibility to respect the yielding speaker's context. The second speaker's point will be subordinate to the yielding speaker's topic.

Other participants understand that when the second speaker has finished, that the prerogative for the floor will revert to the yielding speaker, who may choose to yield it to a third speaker.

Of course, highly advanced conversationalists can manage nested contexts, with several layers deep of topics subordinated to topics, all interleaving gracefully as each speaker returns the floor to the speaker who yielded it.

Few groups are sufficiently mindful to be able to collaborate so proficiently.

In most cases, a facilitator can help.

Michael Webb, September, 2008

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