Defining Conversation

How do we define conversation in its most basic form?

As I wrote in “Why design the conversation?” conversation is an overlooked component of our daily lives, but because it is so intrinsic and routine, it becomes an opportunity for us to explore it more, to understand its inner workings, and provides us a way to improve our experience interacting with other people every day.

Recent studies in the field of human-machine relationships brings a fresh perspective to the topic of conversation. As researchers have worked to understand human needs with regards to the new technologies of ECAs (embodied conversational agents), such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, they have often started by studying the nature of human-human conversation as a first step. This new research is a great way for us to gather the most current knowledge on conversation without recreating the wheel. We will explore these needs further in the next post.

Simplistically defined, conversation is the act of talking: to yourself or to others. We have imaginary conversations, conversations with organizations, conversations for play with our children, conversations to share concerns. Each has its own unique patterns and qualities. In order to design for it, there needs to be a deeper understanding of what conversations is, such as: what are the types of conversations we have, where do we have them, what type of modes and hierarchies are we familiar with?

In “What is conversation? Can we design for effective conversation?” authors Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro discuss the simple tasks that are part of entering into and maintaining a conversation:

  1. Open a channel
  2. Commit to engage
  3. Construct meaning
  4. Evolve
  5. Converge on agreement
  6. Act or Transact (Dubberly and Pangaro 2-3).

These tasks are visualized in an example of one type of conversation they identify as “conversation for agreement” as seen in Figure 1. This type of conversation is frequently present in our workplace interactions.

Hugh Dubberly's Conversation for Agreement

figure 1

This image of a conversation also effectively illustrates the internal dialogue that occurs simultaneously with the outward-facing, vocal elements of the conversation. It is imperative, as we define conversation, to consider the presence of this parallel narrative. The goal of this conversation is to try to achieve symmetry between the individual perceptions of the concept at the center of the discussion.

However, this symmetry is often not achieved within a statement or two. Conversations naturally flow through stages of divergence and convergence before they can find such alignment.

figure 2

Degrees of Interaction
within Conversation

Simply calling it “talking” though doesn’t quite capture the degree of interaction in conversation. In his article “The Four Types of Conversations,” conflict consultant David Angel identifies four distinct degrees of conversation: discourse, dialogue, diatribe and debate — each featuring varying expectations of “back and forth,” formal/informalness, and social norms. (see figure 2)



“to deliver information”

You may be familiar with discourse from the popular TED Talks platform.

These environments are typically more formal in nature, and there is a limited expectation of sharing experiences or opinions.



“to exchange information and build relationships”

While similar in nature to discourse, most conversations – from personal to work – live in dialogue aligned spaces. 

These environments can be both formal and casual, and there is an expectation for a back and forth exchange of ideas, where knowledge, information or experience is shared.



“to express emotions, browbeat, or inspire”

You may be familiar with this type of conversation from CNN, MSNBC or FOX News that feature “talking head” panels of opinionated, soap-box personalities solely focused on sharing their opinions.

These environments can be both formal and informal, but are overwhelmingly one-sided.



 “to win or convince”

You may be familiar with debates from our recent presidential debates.

These environments are usually formal, and there is limited participation from those listeners outside of the predetermined conversationalists.


The Self, The Group,
& The Organization

We often fail to observe the complex social structures that surround us day to day, that we participate in unknowingly. It is important to recognize how the layers of conversation overlap as well as build upon one another, rather than exist in a bubble.

Conversations with the self can happen while alone (reflecting on the morning’s meeting) or within teams (noticing a team member’s lateness). Conversations with others can be simple (two co-workers discussing an invite list) or complex (20 members of a C-suite leadership team strategizing and developing the next year’s budget). Taken all together, over time, these singular conversations begin to form organizational conversation.

While the “self” mode of conversation is fairly straightforward (it happens mostly in one’s own mind), group conversation can happen in a variety of modes: in “real time,” such as a meeting, or asynchronous, such as a forum. Even within the modes, “real time” can place people in the same place or remotely.* Email often dances between real time and not; we’ve all had “conversations” via rapid fire email exchanges as well as responses that span the course of days, weeks, or even longer. I’ll discuss how self and group conversations form organizational identity in an upcoming post.

You can see all of these factors make for a complicated subject. Ultimately each of these interactions build upon each other. The Art of Focused Conversation describes the chaotic nature of attempting to steer through it: “…Group conversations are not simple affairs—they are often more like navigating rapids than paddling down a calm river” (The Institute for Cultural Affairs 30).

For the purpose of this site, however, we are focusing on in-person, real-time conversational spaces within organizational contexts, and in my next post, we will review what human beings need to feel like these conversations connect us, as well as encourage us to be vulnerable, empathetic and open.

*Pandemic work has unprecedented levels of real time / remote conversations, and many of us are aware of the nuances we experience in conversation as a result of this new normal.