You no doubt have participated in countless conversations throughout your life, and the process of how to conduct a conversation may seem so obvious that it needs no examination. Yet, all cultures have rituals of various kinds, and conversation is one of these universal rituals. A skilled business communicator knows when to speak, when to remain silent, and to always stop speaking before the audience stops listening. Expectations may differ based on the type of conversation and the knowledge and experience of participants, but here are the basic five steps of a conversation.
Conversation as a Ritual
Steven Beebe, Susan Beebe, and Mark Redmond offer us five stages of conversation that are adapted here for our discussion (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2002).
The first stage of conversation is called initiation, and requires you to be open to interact. How you communicate openness is up to you; it may involve nonverbal signals like eye contact or body positions, you may be smiling or facing the other person and making eye contact. For some, this may produce a degree of anxiety. If status and hierarchical relationships are present, it may be a question of who speaks when, according to cultural norms.
The preview is an indication, verbal or nonverbal, of what the conversation is about, both in terms of content and in terms of the relationship. A word or two in the subject line of an email may signal the topic, and the relationship between individuals, such as an employee-supervisor relationship, may be understood. A preview can serve to reduce uncertainty and signal intent.
3. Talking Point(s)
Joseph DeVito characterizes this step as getting down to business, reinforcing the goal orientation of the conversation (DeVito, 2003). In business communication, we often have a specific goal or series of points to address, but we cannot lose sight of the relationship messages within the discussion of content. By clearly articulating, either in written or oral form, the main points, you provide an outline or structure to the conversation.
Similar to a preview step, this stage allows the conversational partners to clarify, restate, or discuss the points of the conversation to arrive at a sense of mutual understanding. Western cultures often get to the point rather quickly and once an understanding is established there is a quick move to the conclusion.
Feedback is an opportunity to make sure the interaction was successful the first time. Failure to attend to this stage can lead to the need for additional interactions, reducing efficiency across time.
The acceptance of feedback on both sides of the conversation often signals the transition to the conclusion of the conversation.
There are times when a conversational partner introduces new information in the conclusion, which can start the process all over again. You may also note that if words like “in conclusion” or “oh—one more thing” are used, a set of expectations is now in force. A conclusion has been announced and the listener expects it. If the speaker continues to recycle at this point, the listener’s listening skills are often not as keen as they were during the heat of the main engagement, and it may even produce frustration. People mentally shift to the next order of business and this transition must be negotiated successfully.
By mentioning a time, date, or place for future communication you can clearly signal that the conversation, although currently concluded, will continue later. In this way, you can often disengage successfully while demonstrating respect.