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Smart Conversations: How to Navigate Effective Discourse

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Some communication theorists interpret human communication as a continuous loop, with the sender and receiver simultaneously engaged in the receiving, interpreting and responding to each other’s messages. However, when people are in conflict, their communication is fraught with misinterpretation. Parallel one-way communication never transforms conflict because there is no basis for mutual understanding. Each participant operates from their own worldview. Without a thoughtful, conscious exchange and recognition of interests the conflict will just be exacerbated.

However, we have choices in communication formats. Conscious conversation means being aware of the different communication structures we have for speaking and listening and choosing an appropriate format. In this article we will define eight forms of discourse discussed by Mark Gerzon, president and founder of Mediators Foundation. We’ll also share some tips on becoming a better conversationalist, from David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times.

Forms of Discourse

Argument: Unstructured exchange of words whose purpose is to vent or wound.

Debate: Structured argument with ground rules. Each side’s goal is to exchange their position and attack the other side.

Presentation: Purpose is to offer information with little opportunity for meaningful exchange.

Discussion: Another information sharing format. There are often no ground rules in discussion and no structure for decision-making.

Negotiation: A process for working through agreement between stakeholders. Effective at achieving compromise if issues are clear and all necessary parties are present. More complex, systemic conflicts often require other forms of discourse, in addition to negotiation.

Council: A structured process with ground rules where stakeholders sit in a circle and each has an opportunity to speak openly and honestly. Originally conceived by Native American tribes, this form is useful for adversaries who have never met face-to-face as well as when confrontational communication patterns characterize the participants’ interactions.

Dialogue: This is a process that is designed to identify common ground and to explore and challenge assumptions. The premise is that we are right and they are wrong; however, the truth is greater than either side. The intention is not to rush to judgment but to allow participants to better understand the issue, each other, and potential outcomes.

Reflective silence: Invocation of moments of silence at the start of a meeting, event or other gathering. Sometimes it serves to cool passions and bring people into deeper communication.

Argument, debate and presentation are not problem solving forms of discourse. If problem solving is necessary then negotiation, council and dialogue may be worth exploring.

The Art of Conversation

So, how do you converse with others in a respectful and productive manner? Now, let’s take a look at several tips for becoming a better conversationalist.

Brooks suggests being a “loud listener.” Use active listening techniques including encouraging affirmations and other acknowledgements of what the other is saying. If you can, try to “storify” by asking, “How did you come to believe that?” This prompt will allow your conversation partner to become more revealing and personal.

Another tip Brooks suggests is to engage in “looping,” which simply means to paraphrase the important parts of the conversation back to the other person. This affirms to them that you are listening and understand what is being said. You can also position the other person as a narrator by encouraging more detail from their story. You can ask follow-up questions to help them provide a more concrete account of what happened.

Finally, Brooks warns against being a “topper.” No one wants to be one-upped in a conversation, so avoid phrases like, “The same thing happened to me. I’m having the same problem with my boss.” This only shifts attention back to yourself.

Being aware of how you speak with others is so important for avoiding conflict at home and at work. Engaging in balanced, respectful discourse can lead to more enjoyable, less stressful relationships. If, however, you find yourself in conflict, a trusted mediator is a great resource for diffusing the situation and bringing everyone back together again.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute.  She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.


Author: Ellen Kandell

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