How to talk so people listen

Jon Sutton reports on Professor Liz Stokoe's talk at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference.

Speaking as part of the student conference at the BPS Annual, Professor Liz Stokoe (Loughborough University) was flying the flag for what she called ‘pfaffing around with soggy qualitative psychology’. Outlining numerous projects which have analysed talk ‘in the wild’, she did a superb job of conveying the thrill of research: ‘there’s this thing, and it was just lying around in the world before someone bothered to pick it up, now I’m going to look around and see what other examples I can find’.

Professor Stokoe has worked in some fascinating areas, gratifyingly at least in part since a ‘Careers’ interview in The Psychologist led to an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’, a TED talk (in Bermuda!), a Tatler magazine feature, a WIRED Innovation Fellowship and more. She has discovered that talk in natural, everyday contexts is not as idiosyncratic and messy as we might think it is… we’re not as personality or gender driven as we might assume, instead following a typical route on a ‘racetrack’ of conversation.

For example, why can we spot a cold caller a mile off? The reciprocal elements of conversation are missing. Professor Stokoe played a cringeworthy example which went along the lines of ‘And how are you today?’; ‘Good thanks’; ‘Not too bad’. Can you spot the missing element? If you’re on the receiving end of a cold call, you know it’s coming from a manual. The caller is not entitled to do this little routine which usually denotes friendship and familiarity. What should cold callers do? ‘Stop building rapport’, Professor Stokoe advised. ‘It doesn’t work.’

Professor Stokoe also studied calls to community mediation services, from people hoping to resolve neighbour disputes. She became more and more interested in the fact that across 600 calls, only a third of them ended with the person who called agreeing to free mediation. One the ‘racetrack’, Stokoe noticed that callers always start off by saying ‘somebody else gave me this number’. They don’t phone up and say ‘hello, I’d like to make an appointment for mediation please’. ‘You are a service that the person didn’t want and didn’t know about,’ Stokoe summarised. Zooming in on the moment where the explanation of mediation happens, she noticed that mediation was being sold as an ideology, an ethos. Callers tended to respond with ‘Well, to be quite honest, I don’t think she’d cooperate’. ‘When you’re in a dispute,’ Stokoe noted, ‘all you really want is for people to agree with you – to say that you’re the nice, reasonable one.’ If that’s not possible, it’s better to just explain mediation as a process: ‘this happens, and then that happens’. When callers are asked if they would be willing to take that next step, or it is proposed that they are the nice one, caller uptake is strong (the ‘more than’ response).

Turning to calls to GP receptionists, Stokoe said that ‘Almost in the first call we found the main trainable thing that is going wrong.’ Too often, the receptionist is ‘on that racetrack, she can see the finish line, and the caller is going to have to drag them back. There’s going to be a crash at the end of the call… the patient has to keep themselves in an encounter just so that they can achieve some service.’ The more instances there were of patients having to push for things in this way, the lower the score on a GP experience survey. ‘These are simple, small things to fix,’ Stokoe concluded, ‘if you can only find them.’

Analysis of Metropolitan Police recordings of hostage negotiators in the field, trying to stop people committing suicide, completed Stokoe’s winding journey. These professionals are very well trained, and amazing at what they do, Stokoe said. Nevertheless, using her Conversation Analytic Roleplay Method, she hopes to ‘finesse the training’. By going back and thinking in a fine-grained way about what happened and what worked, Stokoe can have real impact in hard areas. Far from soggy, and job done in terms of her stated goal of inspiring those ‘treading the non-traditional path’.

- More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear online over the next fortnight, and then a selection in the July edition. Next year's event is to be held in Brighton from 3-5 May.

Professor Elizabeth Stokoe appears in 'The Psychologist presents… at Latitude Festival' in July. We asked her to tell us more about conversation analysis and its practical uses.

"We live our lives by talking to others. We build, maintain and end our personal and professional relationships. We buy and sell. We get and give help. We are excited, irritated, embarrassed and consoled in response to things others say to us. Yet psychologists have often shied away from studying talk, preferring to ask people to report on their communicative lives in interviews or questionnaires, or to simulate them in laboratories. Psychologists have argued that people’s talk is too idiosyncratic or too messy to capture and study systematically. But conversation analysts have shown that talk is, in fact, highly organised.

Conversation analysis involves collecting corpora of tens to thousands of audio or video recordings of talk in the wild. The recordings are transcribed and analysed using a technical system that permits a forensic analysis of the constituent activities that comprise complete interactions. Collectively, conversation analysts have investigated all aspects of social life from first dates to medical consultations and from family mealtimes to cockpit interaction.

Conversational racetracks
It can be useful to think of a conversation in terms of a racetrack with a distinct landscape. We start at the beginning with our recipient(s) and, along the way, complete projects of various kinds. All racetracks involve ‘openings’, ‘closings’ and projects that progress them in between. Initial enquiries to an unfamiliar organisation might involve an explanation of their service; calling the GP involves requesting an appointment. All of these projects can be done in more than one way. CA focuses on how different project designs lead to different outcomes.

For instance, analysis of a corpus of recorded first dates reveals that they comprise the delicate project of asking about previous relationships. Participants do this in one of two ways: asking indirectly with a trail-off ‘or’ (‘So, are you divorced, or…?’) or asking directly (‘So what’s your relationship history then?’). Asking indirectly is more effective – at least if you want to keep the date on course!

The natural laboratory
It’s common to measure communication success exogenously by asking people to report how they feel about their encounters. Dates rate their date; customers rate their experience; patients rate their satisfaction. However, conversation analysts establish the effectiveness of communication endogenously, inside the natural laboratory that recorded datasets provide. The effectiveness of questions about previous relationships in first dates is assessed by examining what happens after direct (misalignment) and indirect (alignment) questions. In calls from prospective clients of mediation services, callers are more likely to agree to mediate if the service is explained as a process (e.g., ‘Mediation works by … what happens first is … and then…’) rather than an ethos (e.g., ‘We don’t take sides’, ‘mediation is voluntary’).

Knowing the right words can tilt conversations towards particular outcomes. Another finding from studying initial enquiries to mediation services shows that reluctant callers reverse their stance when asked if they would be ‘willing’ to try it out. While asking if callers are ‘interested’ in mediation may get some ‘yeses’, ‘willing’ gets a much stronger uptake and only ‘willing’ turns clients around from ‘no’ to ‘yes’.

From research to training
These research findings underpin a training approach called the Conversation Analytic Role-play Method. The approach presents mediators, doctors, salespeople, police officers – depending on the research setting studied – with a line-by-line transcript of a real encounter, rather than staged, hypothetical ones, allowing them to assess what really happens in their communicative world, practise what they might say next in such a situation, and see what works when completing their particular projects. CARM makes a unique research-based contribution to communication training. By looking under the bonnet at the engine that drives social life, we discover that the answer to the question of how to talk so people listen was there all along."

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber