Conversation Types

We’re jumping in this month with the topic of communication. The first two articles will focus on types of conversations – what is in the DNA of how you’re going about talking with or to someone? Why is it helpful to pay attention to that? These ideas can be applied in all aspects of your life, and very specifically at work when you’re thinking about how to adapt your approach when sharing info with happy guests or trying to please an upset one, acknowledging a team member for showing up great or getting them back to a standard of performance that they’re missing. Those examples merely scratch the surface, I’d love to hear how you’re connecting these ideas to the interactions in your day-to-day with various people or groups.

Thank you for your time, please shoot me an email with any thoughts, feedback, and ideas. To date, only one person has challenged the content in these articles I send out and I appreciated hearing it. What would you push back on with this one?

Thanks again! – Becky

Conversation Types

by Becky Lemon, 3/6/19

When we’re preparing to be in a conversation, we often focus our attention on what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it. We often miss the opportunity to step back and consider what type of conversation we should be in to make communication satisfying and effective. This is also true if we find ourselves in the middle of a conversation that is going nowhere or going south – sure it could be the content, words or delivery, it could also be that you’re in two different types of conversations or in one that doesn’t get you what you need.

Growing the instinct to identify and intentionally craft our conversation type is one piece in an enormous puzzle of being a good communicator. Some understanding and deliberate practice is all it takes to add this skill to your communication tool box.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán via Pexels

So what types of conversations are there?

Well, there’s about 1000 of them. Or perhaps 4 when you dig into the subject and focus on what is trying to be achieved in any particular communication. That’s what Conflict Consultant David W. Angel did, the following is his theory on the subject, check it out and see what you think:

The Four Types of Conversations
Published on 12/28/16 by David W. Angel on his blog, The Opportune Conflict

When talking with someone, it is helpful to know what type of conversation you are in. You can do so based on a conversation’s direction of communication (a one-way or two-way street) and its tone/purpose (competitive or cooperative).

If you are in a one-way conversation, you are talking at someone, rather than with someone. If you are in a two-way conversation, participants are both listening and talking. In a competitive conversation, people are more concerned about their own perspective, whereas in a cooperative conversation participants are interested in the perspective of everyone involved.

Based on direction and tone, I grouped conversations into four types: debate, dialogue, discourse, and diatribe.

  • Debate is a competitive, two-way conversation. The goal is to win an argument or convince someone, such as the other participant or third-party observers.
  • Dialogue is a cooperative, two-way conversation. The goal is for participants to exchange information and build relationships with one another.
  • Discourse is a cooperative, one-way conversation. The goal to deliver information from the speaker/writer to the listeners/readers.
  • Diatribe is a competitive, one-way conversation. The goal is to express emotions, browbeat those that disagree with you, and/or inspires those that share the same perspective.

Angel's Four Types of Conversation

To highlight the differences between these types of conversations, let’s use politics as an example:

  • Debate: two family members from opposite sides of the political spectrum arguing over politics.
  • Dialogue: two undecided voters talking to each other about the candidates, trying to figure out who they want to vote for.
  • Discourse: a professor giving a lecture on international affairs.
  • Diatribe: a disgruntled voter venting about the election’s outcome.

It is important to know which type of conversation you are in, because that determines the purpose of that conversation. If you can identify the purpose, you can better speak to the heart of that conversation. But, if you misidentify the conversation you are in, you can fall into conversational pitfalls.
Here are a few examples of conversational pitfalls I’ve written about:

“Talking At, Not With: The Problem of Disconnected Conversations” – sometimes your dialogue might actually be two separate discourses (or diatribes) instead; will you recognize that in time?
“When Arguing Over Value Issues, Sometimes Facts and Truth Don’t Matter” – sometimes people just want to diatribe; what can you do when that happens, especially when you want to have a dialogue or debate?

If someone appears to be in a conversational pitfall, you can help them climb back out. Regardless of how one climbs back out, the solution always starts with identifying which hole you are in. You must first know the problem before you can find the solution. And, sometimes, just identifying the pitfall itself is enough to draw attention to the problem and correct the conversation.

When you are in a conversation, take a moment to think about which conversation you are actually in. Each of the types of conversation are meaningless on their own; you give them meaning in their use. And, ultimately, it is up to you to decide what type of conversation you want to be part of.

Okay, so how do I really use this?

  1. Determine the purpose of the conversation at hand – Why are you talking with this person or people? What is the point?
  2. Identify your desired end results – What do you hope to achieve in this conversation? What do you not want to happen? What do you need them to take away from it? How do you want everyone to feel coming out of it?
  3. Decide what type of conversation will be best given your circumstance. Keep in mind, it might be useful to start with one type and move into another. For example, if someone is not meeting a standard, you might need to share some candid feedback with them first (discourse), and follow it up with a dialogue to get understanding of why they’re showing up the way they are and figure out together what it will look like to move forward in a different way.
  4. Try, fail, review, learn, adjust, try again, succeed, review, learn, adjust, repeat…

What’s the kicker?

The kicker is that conversations are super complex, fluid, and messy. The conversation type you choose is, in a way, just the two-dimensional plane on which the conversation is being built. You’ll also need to consider the kind of emotion brought to it, the language being used, people’s intentions for being in it together, everyone’s ability to say the thing that needs to be said, non-verbals, tone, listening capabilities, differing ways of processing information, status, time constraints, setting, etc.; they all add a distinct weight and shape to every interaction we have with others.

Sometimes we’ll mix all of that together and have amazing conversations, sometimes we’ll mix it all together and fail miserably.

It’s enough to make anyone want to just throw caution to the wind and say whatever comes to their mind in whatever way it comes out, good communication be damned. It’s also a worthy challenge; there is significant benefit, unique to us all, when we practice these skills individually and through trial and error integrate them into a general practice of communicating with intention.

What now?

Let this all sink in, start paying attention to how you’re experiencing conversations. Now that you have these definitions, are you recognizing which ones you’re in or listening in on? Are you not? Where do you agree with this analysis of conversation types and where are you poking holes in it? Next week we’ll explore how this theory connects to conversation types & tools that are prominent at Vestalia.

2 thoughts on “Conversation Types

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