How on Earth Do People Understand Each Other in Everyday Conversation?

Luckily, depending on the communication channel, conversation partners can immediately repair miscommunications once they become clear. In face-to-face conversations we provide each other feedback about whether something is understood or not, and if needed we can immediately correct or provide additional information. Feedback, using vocal (e.g., uhuh, yeah, ok) and nonverbal signals (e.g., nodding, a smile or frown) are crucial for having a smooth conversation (Clark & Brennan, 1991Clark & Krych, 2004Clark & Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986). This process in which listeners inform speakers about their level of understanding occurs mostly automatic and outside awareness. Yet, these subtle nonverbal reactions are very important, and even in situations in which one person is talking and the other is merely listening, speakers constantly monitor their conversation partner and change their story depending on the listeners' replies and feedback (Bavelas, Coates & Johnson, 2000Beukeboom, in press;Kraut, Lewis & Swezey, 1982).

An interesting demonstration of the effect listeners have on speakers is provided in an experiment in which participants were instructed to tell a close call story to another participant (Bavelas, Coates & Johnson, 2000). Half of the participants pairs were allowed to behave naturally, yet in other experimental conditions the listeners were distracted (unknown to the speaker) by asking them to count the number of t's in the speaker's story. This distraction task made it virtually impossible for listeners to show their usual listener responses, which allowed the researchers to test whether this changed the speaker's behavior. Interestingly, switching off the responses of listeners by distracting them had a huge impact on how speakers told their story. In particular, when listeners were distracted, speakers' stories were told less well and particularly poorly at what should have been the dramatic conclusion. The endings were abrupt and choppy, they circled around, or were told more than once. Also, speakers tended to needlessly reiterate the problem, add irrelevant information, and tended to justify or explain the plot. This research clearly demonstrates that conversations are a joint activity, in which conversation partners collaborate moment by moment to create and maintain mutual understanding.

When focusing on the different mechanisms people rely on in conversations, one may realize that it is in fact quite a remarkable achievement that we usually are able to understand each other quite easily. Generally, we don't (need to) think about how we actually do this. What we may experience, however, is whether a conversation runs smoothly and feels pleasant or not. Interestingly, the ability of conversation partners to reach and maintain mutual understanding is strongly related to how the interaction is experienced. People always strive to get understanding with as little effort as possible (i.e., principle of least collaborative effort; Clark & Brennan, 1991) and we generally prefer to get acceptance and agreement on our utterances (i.e., preference agreement; Pomerantz, 1984). Consequently, pleasant conversations are conversations in which both parties quickly understand what the other intends to say and possible misunderstandings are smoothly corrected. It is simply nice to learn that you share common ground with someone. In contrast, it is annoying when it is difficult to reach common ground; when you keep disagreeing, or when it takes too many words or turns to get the other to understand something. Talking at cross purposes for a minute about a different textbook may be annoying simply because it is a waste of energy. The best conversations are most likely those in which you understand each other without words. But don't take this literally.



Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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