Human Needs in Conversation

What do we need to feel satisfied in conversation?

But what makes for good conversation, or the feelings associated with good conversation? In a 2019 human-machine study titled “What Makes a Good Conversation? Challenges in Designing Truly Conversational Agents,” there were four human-human needs most commonly identified in surveys and interviews: 

  • Mutual understanding & common ground,
  • Trust-worthiness,
  • Active listenership, and
  • Humor (Clark et al. 2).

In workplace environments, where most conversation is task oriented, the authors write “transactional conversation pursues a practical goal, often fulfilled during the course of one interaction. In these types of exchanges, both interlocutors know what the goal of the dialogue is. They have different clearly-defined roles, and success is measured by the achievement of the transaction’s purpose” (Clark et al. 2). Simply put, we want our workplace interactions to include purposeful conversations, where our unique contributions are appreciated, while feeling consistent clarity on how to “move forward” on a task.


“Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.”

-Edith Wharton

Let’s review these four areas of need a bit deeper:

Mutual Understanding & Common Ground

In “What Makes a Good Conversation…,” the authors write: “Participants stressed the importance of understanding the intent and meaning behind what other speakers are saying… As well as providing a mutually understood focus during interaction, a knowledge of others, supports attempts to reach a common understanding” (Clark et al. 4). In layman’s terms, this means that the researchers found we seek alignment between what a speaker is saying and the intentions behind it (sarcasm or passive aggressiveness are examples of tactics that may thwart this), as well as a mutually agreed upon focus (or an agenda) for a conversation to feel successful.

This means that what you say is often as important as how you say it. Tone, volume, and content are playing an important role here in establishing a foundation from which a positive conversation can be held (Ebenstein 26-32). In a work world that has become increasingly collaborative, creating understanding and common ground becomes more and more essential.


A little extra...

The desire for mutual understanding is not a new concept. In Mary Parker Follett’s 1924 book, Creative Experience, she points out that establishing common ground does not mean establishing agreement. Rather it is an act of information and experience sharing that explores a concept through to a point where conversationalists begin to see eye to eye, even if they do not yet agree on how best to move forward.

We need experts, we need accurate information, but the object is not to do away with difference but to do away with muddle. When for lack of facts you and I are responding to a different situation—you to the situation as you imagine it, I to the situation as I imagine, it—we cannot of course come to agreement… If I think I am looking at a black snake and you think it is a fallen branch, our talk will be merely chaotic. But after we have decided that it is a snake, we do not then automatically agree what to do with it. You and I may respond quite differently to “black snake”… Difference based on inaccuracy is meaningless. We have not done away with difference, but we have provided the possibility for fruitful difference (Follett 6).

Thus, explaining our viewpoints regarding the shared situations, agendas, or outcomes are helpful steps to satisfying our need to establish mutual understanding and common ground in conversation. By erasing the muddle first, we can begin to converse upon how best to move forward.


Another important quality the researchers identified in “What Makes a Good Conversation…” was humans’ desire to trust our conversational partners. They write: “having trust in a partner seems to be a gateway to open the possibility of more personal conversations” (Clark et al. 4). In the workplace, where communication can often be superficial or short term, trust can be elusive to cultivate; we jockey for roles, we lose important bids, we may not see certain members of a team day to day. This makes it difficult, though not impossible, to develop any workplace as a deeply rooted “safe space” in the same way we can in our personal lives.

Our intrinsic need for trust is reiterated in a The New York Times Magazine article titled “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” where researchers in Google’s Project Aristotle team found that:

“…to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy” (Duhigg).

When we trust our co-workers, colleagues, team members, managers and leaders, we feel safe to be vulnerable, think outside the box, challenge ourselves and our preconceived ideas, and apply failure as an essential step towards success, rather than a reflection on our capabilities.


A little extra...

In I Hear You, author Donny Ebenstein discusses the role vulnerability plays in establishing trusting relationships and open conversation in the workplace.

Many stuck situations become intractable because neither side wants to share emotions for fear of appearing weak. This can lead to a standoff, with no progress being made. Sometimes expressing one’s emotions in a non-threatening and vulnerable manner can elicit empathy from the other side, changing the entire dynamic (Ebenstein 28).

Trust can be built by opening yourself up, expressing your true feelings and creating a safe place for others to share their impressions and reactions as well. However, this cannot be a manipulative tactic to get what you want, otherwise long-term trust will never be achieved. Genuine care and a true desire to move a conversation forward must be at the heart of any purposeful conversation.

Active Listening

“Participants described that paying attention, demonstrating engagement and a willingness to participate in conversation was important in two-way interactive dialogue” (Clark et al. 4).

Yet in today’s information-overloaded workplaces (and lives!) gaining true active listenership can be challenging. We have all been in meetings with our colleagues who are tapping away on laptops or cell phones as we wonder if they are taking engaging notes or replying to an unrelated email. Even we might look actively engaged, but instead are making mental notes about our children’s schedules or grocery lists.

In Let the Story Do the Work, author Esther Choy acknowledges this reality: “There’s no question that setting aside our thoughts and worries to focus on what others have to say can be challenging and energy-consuming” (Choy 141). She promotes the concept of aggressive listening and provides ideas that may aid in letting go and truly plugging in (Choy 142-147). Her advice (given to her by her former Northwestern University professor Paul Arntson): “For every one part talking, do three parts listening” (141). Adhering to a 75-to-25% listening to talking ratio (141) may, at first, feel slightly awkward while in the midst of a conversation – but with some practice and awareness, it isn’t too difficult to achieve.


A little extra...

Listening well goes beyond two-person and group situations within the organization. Listening is an important quality of leadership as well, helping to engrain the quality as an essential expectation of operations. In “Leadership is a Conversation” Groysberg and Slind promote “conversational intimacy” by the leadership level of an organization: “True attentiveness signals respect for people of all ranks and roles, a sense of curiosity, and even a degree of humility” (Groysberg and Slind 79).

Listening becomes especially important as technology allows managers and leaders to blanket workers with messaging. “For many executives and managers, the temptation to treat every medium at their disposal as if it were a megaphone has proved hard to resist. In some companies, however, leaders have fostered a genuinely interactive culture – values, norms, and behaviors that create a welcoming space for dialogue” (Groysberg and Slind 80).

In The Art of Focused Conversation, this need for organizations to shift from top-down information flow systems to those with information flows going “in every direction, up, down, sideways and diagonally” requires leaders to move away from “being charismatic decision-makers and infallible bosses to becoming people who facilitate questioning” (Institute for Cultural Affairs 12-13). Leaders who see facilitation as an important skill will be increasingly desired in today’s marketplaces. “…These days everyone wants to participate in everything, and those who can facilitate a useful conversation will be at a premium” (Institute for Cultural Affairs 13). Shifting this approach to leadership will require managers to see their roles as drivers of information by asking the right questions to elicit useful knowledge; listening will be an essential component of this style of operating.


In “What Makes Good Conversation…” participants often noted humor as an essential element of good conversation, but warned against that which is disingenuous. It needs to have “substance and relevance to the conversation” noting humor’s ability to “soften serious intentions or deliver substantive message in conversation” (Clark et al. 5).

This means that while humor may be welcome, it must be used appropriately and respectfully. We’ve all seen an episode of The Office where Michael Scott’s version of humor made us cringe; it is important to recognize when it is appropriate to insert humor and how to craft it in a way that adds rather than undermines.

That said, humor comes in a variety of forms and can often provide a sense of fun into a long work week as well as be a source of brevity; we’ve all chuckled at the Southwest announcer who playfully turns the safety lecture into something more palatable. In the 2016 article “Getting Serious about funny: Psychologists see humor as a character strength” Janet Gibson writes: “Positive psychology, a field that examines what people do well, notes that humor can be used to make others feel good, to gain intimacy or to help buffer stress…  And humor activities or exercises result in increased feelings of emotional well-being and optimism” (Gibson). In other words, when co-workers are having a good time, it feels a lot less like work.


A little extra...

In the 2013 study, “Laughing and liking: Exploring the interpersonal effects of humor use in initial social interactions,” researchers performed a series of experiments to understand the relationship between humor and liking. The authors conclude: “Our results supported ideas of prior researchers who have proposed that people can use humor to signal liking or to simply establish closeness with an unacquainted other… One of the most fundamental and powerful human motivations is to form bonds with others” (Treger et al. 540). In workplace settings where there is a plethora of unacquainted co-workers and infrequent team members, activities that include humor may aid in more quickly creating the intimacy needed to successfully tackle a project.

all the ingredients

Are our needs being met?

In reality, these four areas of identified needs are not neatly wrapped up into clear cut categories. Humorous activities designed to foster openness, for example, may also allow us to both actively listen as well as to build trust. It is important not to view each of these as segregated concepts, but rather as a way to identify ingredients that are all needed in the pie, often in different proportions, but each a necessary area to identify and consider.


If we look back at a previous post, “Why Design the Conversation?” we can see that many of our workplace conversations are not achieving this degree of satisfaction. We are dealing with an epidemic of workers who often leave conversations feeling stuck, frustrated, devalued, or lacking clarity about our specific role in the project or next steps.