The Art and Science of Great Conversations

By Psychology Today Contributors published May 2, 2023 - last reviewed on May 19, 2023


This week starts a 4-week series on conversation

Conversation is a lot like art. It’s one of those uniquely human experiences that distills much complexity and infinite variety, verging on the indefinable. Unlike art, however, conversation is not a virtuoso endeavor. It is not only inherently an ensemble enterprise, it’s also how we share what we know, date and mate, and find security. Conversation has extraordinary powers to excite, our neurons being so sensitive to face-to-face engagement that they rapidly activate reward systems in our brains. Yet surveys show that it’s losing ground to texting and other forms of communication that, at best, provide some pale illusion of satisfaction.

I. The Hidden Heart of Every Conversation

Dialogue is the most basic social covenant—an agreement to cooperate—and the most sophisticated.

By Valerie Fridland, Ph.D.

Rarely is anyone ever taught how to converse. Yet we all seem to know how to make conversations proceed. Even when we aren’t brilliant raconteurs, we all follow certain hidden rules for managing our tetes-a-tetes. We take turns. We strive to be clear. We speak in snippets, not soliloquies.

What factors drive our conversations forward?


Unspoken Agreements

Conversation rests on, first and foremost, an agreement to cooperate. People implicitly consent to work together to be mutually understood. The idea that successful communication requires us to follow and, crucially, recognize certain culturally absorbed conventions was first articulated by British philosopher of language, Paul Grice in the 1970s.

In observing the so-called cooperative principles, we seem to follow some basic ground rules, which Grice termed “conversational maxims” that help us figure out what to infer from what people say and how they say it.

The maxim of relevance ensures that what we say relates in some way to what has been said before. The maxim of quantity urges us to say enough to be informative, but not too much. The maxim of quality binds us to be truthful, and it explains why we normally believe what others say, even if they are strangers. Finally, the maxim of manner has more to do with how we should say things—directly and clearly, unless there is a good reason not to.

Even when we flout the rules, other people will work to figure out how the apparent violation still supports the conventions. For example, if you ask me out on a date and I say I have to wash my hair, you interpret my response as relevant to what you asked and deduce a softened no.

Such intentional rule-breaking is also what helps us understand unstated meaning when people appear to be underinformative (breaking the maxim of quantity). For instance, if you ask me whether I like Bob and Carol from the office, and I reply, “I like Carol,” my very lack of informativeness in response reveals the real answer (that I like Carol but not Bob). Such strategic flouting of the rules allows us to be polite and indirect.


When Interlocutors Align

We not only follow unspoken rules, but we also adjust our speech behavior to our conversation partner to facilitate communication and social approval—what’s known as communication accommodation (or alignment) theory (CAT). The direction and extent of adjustments go a long way in determining whether we come out of a conversation feeling that it was successful.

According to CAT, a speaker’s personality, status, and social background influence whether and how much someone will adjust their speech to match those they are talking with. Those with more interest in social approval and who have higher levels of agreeableness and self-consciousness generally modify their conversation more than those who do not score high on such scales. Those of high status accommodate less, as do people of dissimilar backgrounds.

The more positively speakers view an interaction and/or conversation partner, the more they tend to accommodate each other’s linguistic style. And, similarly, divergence—the opposite of accommodation—occurs at points when speakers want to increase social distance, as during heated discussions or conflict.

In conversation, CAT plays out as participants pick up one another’s vocabulary when discussing something—mimicking a word choice that their conversation partner used—rather than introducing a different term. (Replying, for example, “That’s a nice ride!” to a friend who says, “Check out my new ride.”) This also explains why we might shift styles when talking across generations or in power-based contexts, as in not talking about our “new ride” with grandpa or our boss, but instead using a more neutral term such as “car.”

Speakers also unconsciously adjust loudness, pitch, syntax, and speech rate to match those they talk to, and they can even converge on phonetic characteristics—for instance, unconsciously shifting toward slightly more Southern vowel pronunciations (like baa for bye) if their conversation partner has a Southern accent. Because the speaker who has more power or social status will be the one to whom the accommodation is directed, such accommodation might explain why and how new speech features spread over time within communities.

Why make any accommodations at all? Increased speaker alignment leads to more favorable social outcomes, in particular a more positive impression of those involved in the conversation. For example, in a 2016 study that manipulated whether a speaker came to a conversation with a higher or lower status, researchers found that when less powerful participants in an interaction made adjustments to a higher-status speaker, they were viewed more positively, as was the degree of conversational rapport. When among strangers or equals, accommodation helps manage social distance and increase perceptions of conversational quality.

In the nuanced marvel that is conversation, drawing deeply on social and cultural understanding, accommodation stops short of mimicking. Both over- and under-accommodation can lead to the feeling that others are disingenuous, overly familiar, uninterested, or unpleasant.

For example, if a speaker continues to use only -ing endings (walking) when others have shifted toward using more informal -in’ endings (walkin’), this might lead to a perception of stiffness or pretension on the part of the under-accommodating participant. In contrast, think of how parents might try to adopt a youthful speech style, using slang and overly colloquial speech to relate to their teenagers. Throwing in a like or dude here or there might make a teen feel affirmed while sticking them in every sentence would come across as mocking. Instead, genuine accommodation is fairly unconscious and natural or risks coming across as sucking up or patronizing.

In short, there is much going on behind the scenes to make our conversations successful. We usually all want the same thing—to leave a conversation feeling positive.