The Three Simple Rules that Make Conversation Work
You’re on the outside of the circle. You want to join in the conversation but you don’t know how.
What is the best way of joining in without interrupting or seeming rude?
Or, you are talking with two friends, and the person speaking finishes their turn. There’s a silence.
Who talks next? Will the speaker take another turn? Is it your turn? Someone else’s turn?
The rules of conversations can be confusing, sometimes making you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, and sometimes leaving you feeling awkward, either not knowing what to do with long silences or instead talking over other people who are trying to talk.
I am going help you master the art of turn-taking in conversation by teaching you the three simple rules that govern every conversation.
Who’s Got the Floor?
When social scientists talk about this issue, they talk about who has the conversational floor, or more simply the floor.
The floor is defined as the right to speak.
If you think about conversation as a social system involving multiple people who all want to speak, the primary challenge is how to organize turn-taking, or more formally, how to allocate access to the floor.
Formal Floor Allocation Procedures
If you have ever been in a formal meeting, or watched video of Congress or Parliament on C-SPAN, you’ll know that legislative bodies have formal rules for allocating the floor. Most follow some version of Robert’s Rules of Order.
According to Robert’s Rules, one way to obtain the floor is by rising after another speaker has yielded the floor and ask to be recognized by the chair of the meeting. Once so recognized, one may speak.
Debates between political candidates provide another example of how the floor can be formally allocated.
In Presidential debates, the candidates negotiate the rules in advance, agreeing on the precise order of turns and amount of time allocated to each speaker is agreed upon in advance.
The debate moderator then enforces the rules, recognizing each candidate’s when they have the floor, and enforcing (often unsuccessfully) the time limits on turns.
Informal Floor Allocation Procedures
Formal procedures for floor allocation make the processes for obtaining and yielding the floor explicit. This isn’t what happens in ordinary face-to-face interaction.
But conversation confronts us with the very same problem: how do we decide who gets to speak? How do we know when our turn is over and when another person can begin speaking?
The amazing thing about ordinary conversation is that it proceeds so smoothly most of the time, with few long silences, and relatively little overlapping talk.
If you record and transcribe one of your own conversations, you would be amazed at what a finely synchronized dance it is, with one person often beginning to speak just fractions of a second after another person stops.
How do we achieve this?
In fact, and explanation of conversation must explain a small set of basic facts (taken from Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson’s famous paper about turn-taking):
- One person talks at a time.
- Speakers take turns at talk.
- The size and order of turns vary.
- Transitions between turns are precisely timed.
- Overlapping talk is common but brief.
Three Basic Rules for Conversation
It turns out that the complex coordination that we achieve in everyday conversation results from following just three simple rules about turn-taking.
- Speaker selects next. The person talking has the right to select the next speaker, and they normally do so by naming the person, or by looking at them or pointing to them or indicating toward them in some other way nonverbally.
- Other self-selects. When the speaker pauses, and the pause need only be a fraction of a second. Another person in the conversation can self-select. Whenever there is a pause of any duration, the floor is temporarily open, and anyone can jump in. Generally, the first person to speak up gets the floor.
- Speaker continues. If the speaker stops talking and no one else self-selects the next turn at talk, then the speaker may simply continue.
It’s amazing that a form of interaction as complex, varied and precisely coordinated as conversation can operate by only these rules, but that’s the fact.
All of the observable properties of conversation, including the five mentioned above, arise out of the operation of these three simple rules.
I still haven’t explained how turns can be so precisely coordinated, often separated by only fractions of a second without overlap. I’m going to leave that for another article.
In the meantime, enjoy your conversations, and next time you are in one, observe these three rules in action.
[And don't forget to check out the video.]