Relationships and romance, Social and behavioural

The Psychologist presents… How to talk so people listen

At July's Latitude Festival in the Wellcome Trust Hub, our editor Dr Jon Sutton hosted Elizabeth Stokoe, Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University.

25 July 2016

Jon: "Good afternoon and welcome to ‘The Psychologist presents…’ here in the Wellcome Trust hub. I’m Dr Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist, which is a magazine produced by the British Psychological Society. Please do find us on Twitter, check out our free apps in your iOS/Android stores, and take one of the free copies at the back today.

We’re very happy to return to Latitude after our first appearance last year, and I’m delighted to be joined once more by a first class psychologist and speaker. Elizabeth Stokoe is a Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University, where she studies conversation analysis and has developed a method for communication training. She has spoken about this all over the world – including on BBC Radio 4's The Life Scientific and a TedX talk – I have to say at least in part after featuring in The Psychologist in 2013!

Now, talking of conversation, this session is billed as me ‘in conversation with’ Professor Stokoe. But I’m very much going to take a back seat, and I’ll just explain why via three very quick anecdotes.

Many years ago I was a lecturer of psychology in Glasgow, and one student evaluation form at the end of a year broke it to me that ‘Dr Sutton is afflicted with an unfortunately monotone voice’. Perhaps not fully taking this on board, I made use of the Guardian Soulmates dating service, which at that time was based around recording a message and then phoning in to pick up any responses. I got one! Just the one. And it said: ‘Actually, you sound rather boring, I don’t think I’ll bother’. And finally, my most recent attempt at public speaking was met with a question from the audience that began: ‘Your talk made me sleepy and dizzy’.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that I have implored you, Professor Stokoe, to draw on your own psychological research and that of others in order to answer that all-important question: ‘How can we talk so people listen?’

Liz: What is it that I actually do as a conversation analyst? I make collections of audio and video recordings of people talking in the natural settings of their everyday lives. And then, I transcribe them in a lot of forensic, technical and linguistic detail, to try to understand all of the activities that comprise the complete encounter from the start all the way through until the end.

I often use the analogy of a racetrack, to get people to think about the landscape or architecture of the encounters they’re involved in. So we start at the beginning of an encounter with our recipient or recipients, and then along the way… we complete projects of various kinds.

So if you imagine yourself at the supermarket checkout, then we kind of know the things that are likely to happen in conversation with the checkout person and that they’re a bit different from what might happen if you go to see your GP. If you’re on a first date – and I have studied people on first dates, so I can give you tips later Jon if you need them – if you collect say 100 people on a first date, then the things that daters move through along the way are quite systematic. We tend to think, and again this is mostly psychology’s fault, that the way we behave - including the way we talk - is because of our personalities, or it’s because of our gender, or our culture. We reach for those variables before anything else. But in fact, we’re pushed and pulled around by grammar and words much more than we realise, and that’s why we need a science of naturally occurring talk.

Saying hello

So to start off with, I’m going to play you a clip of two friends in an ordinary telephone call doing something you’ll have done many times yourself day. I’ll start off with the first turn of the person who is answering the phone.

1          Nancy:            H’llo:?

That’s it. This is Nancy, and her friend Hyla; it’s not a mobile so she doesn’t know who is calling, so Nancy picks up the phone and says “Hello?” What’s going to happen next is that her friend Hyla will return the greeting.

2          Hyla:               Hi:,

At the same time as returning the greeting, Hyla also effectively provides a voice sample to identify herself on the phone. She doesn’t say “Hi it’s Hyla”. Nancy shows she understands who is calling in her response:

3          Nancy:            HI::.

Nancy shows she understands who is calling and comes back with another greeting, but with different intonation. You’ll see line numbers so that I can identify things, and dots and dashes which are to do with the way the talk is delivered. You could all hear and see that there was a difference between Nancy’s answering “hello?” and the “hi!” of hello, plus “I now recognise who I am talking to”. The pair then move into the next phase – the “how-are-yous”.

4          Hyla:               How are yuhh.=

5          Nancy:            =Fi:ne how’re you.

You might think well, there’s nothing special about this; that we all know how people tend to greet each other at the start of an encounter. But what I want you to see is how systematic this is across a lot of settings. So here is me and my Dad Skyping.

1          Dad:                Hi Liz, how are you?

2          Liz:                  I’m fine thanks, how are you?

Here are two people on Facebook Messenger.

1          Friend1:           “Hey Isla, how are you?”

2          Friend2:           “Hey you. Not too bad thanks, you?”

Because we’re at Latitude, I thought I’d show you that even ELO know about how calls start – this is from their song, Telephone Line:

1          Caller:              Hello:

2                                              (2.5)

3          Caller:              ~H-~ how are yo:u,

The fact that precisely this exchange happens very systematically at the start of encounters means that when it doesn’t happen, it’s very noticeable. I’m going to show you Dana and Gordon, who are girlfriend and boyfriend, but you are going to see that there are problems between them before one of them has even spoken. Here is Gordon answering the phone to his girlfriend.

1          Gordon:           Hello:,

I said at the start that can be very dangerous! What happens next tells us that Dana and Gordon are in trouble as a couple, and this is what it is.

2                                              (0.7)

Seven tenths of a second silence. That’s why I want the transcription to be so finely tuned – that’s enough for me to know that there are problems between Dana and Gordon; seven tenths of a second are all you need to show some difficulty. The reason for that is if we go back and think about Hyla and Nancy, they were bouncing along with a tenth of a second or less between their turns of talk, so seven tenths of a second is actually quite a long gap between two people taking a turn in a conversation. It tells us that it’s unlikely Dana is going to come back with the “Hi!” “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” They’re going to do something different, and this is what happens next.

3          Dana:               Hello where’ve you

4                                  been all morning.

It doesn’t really take an analyst to see that there’s trouble here, but it does take an analyst to point out precisely where the trouble occurs, and once you start to learn that seven tenths of a second indicates trouble, then you can start to see the power of analysing talk at this level of detail.

Now Gordon has a choice. He could just answer the question in a very deadpan way: “I was at a music workshop”, or he could say “what do you mean, we’re not married, I don’t have to tell you where I am every minute of the day”. Instead it’s very interesting what he does next: he recruits the racetrack; he does what typically happens next!

5          Gordon:           .hh HELLO!

So he’s saying, “I’ll just do one of those, because that’s what typically happens, I’ll show you that I wasn’t expecting such a pushy question at the start of this conversation”.

These are ordinary domestic situations, but I want to show you next that understanding “Hello” and “How are you?” has consequences for understanding commercial or professional environments.

I’m going to show you two clips. The first one is of two office workers in different parts of a council, and you’re going to see that they know each other from the start of the call.

1          Katy:               Katy Green, good morning, c’n I he:lp you,

2                                              (0.3)

3          Shelley:           He:llo Katy good morning t’you.=it’s

4                                  Shelley:.

5          Katy:               .pt £Hello Shelley, how’re you.£=

6          Shelley:           A’right thank you?

Although Katy Green doesn’t know who she’s answering the phone to at first, as soon as Shelley responds and says “it’s Shelley”, you can hear and see in Katy’s turn at line 5 that she knows who Shelley is. The pound signs here mean ‘smile voice’, so we can hear Katy doing recognition. This is one of the things that sales people are often trained to do: “smile when you start talking on the telephone!” The fact that in real talk you don’t get smiles until you know who the other person is tells you that smiling before you’ve even spoken to someone is a very odd thing to do, and it’s a very odd thing to be trained to do.

Now, Katy has asked Shelley, “How are you?”, and Shelley has said “All right thank you”. What should happen next, if they’re in a relationship where they know each other well enough to do it? Shelley should ask “How are you?” back; the “how-are-yous” should be reciprocal.

6          Shelley:           A’right thank you? =’re you [m’duck,]

7          Katy:                                                            [Myeah  ] not

8                                  too ↓bad.

So here we get that reciprocal exchange.

For comparison now, let’s look at a cold call: business to business, the parties don’t know each other; the company that is telephoning is trying to sell another company a photocopying contract. This is work I’m doing with my RA Rein Sikveland and PhD student Bogdana Human. Notice what happens at the start of this call.

1          Client:             Hello Matt speaking,=How can I help.

2                                              (.)

3          Sales:               Hello Matt, it’s Jack from Ocom.=£How’re you doing this morning.£

In these days of cold-calling, we’re all used to hearing “how are you this morning?” with that false bright smile. Let’s see what happens next.

4                                              (.)

5          Client:             Good thanks,

Now, if there was a genuine rapport being built (or already existed) between these people, and if “how are you?” was the way to get it – if it was worth training people to say “How are you today?” – then what should happen next is that the client should say “How are you?” back: there should be that reciprocal action happening. What actually happens next is the weirdest thing. I’ve recorded a lot of interaction, and this is the strangest I have ever seen.

6                                              (.)

7          Sales:               Not too bad,

The sales person says “not too bad” despite the fact that he hasn’t been asked how he is. That’s how scripted and trained he is to just do that thing, mechanically rather than with any genuine sense of empathy, or rapport, or whatever you want to call it. Then it just gets worse.

7          Sales:               Not too bad, =>I suppose< it’s uh >I suppose< it’s (how/our) .hh

8                                  ↑Christmas seems a <distant memory:>.(hh)

He’s phoning in March, and now he’s attempting to do small talk about Christmas. If this made any sense to the caller, we should get some joining in. Instead we get 0.2 seconds and then ‘eh?’

9                                              (0.2)

10        Client:             EHhh,

Then it just becomes incredibly painful to listen to as the sales person keeps trying to build rapport

11                                            (0.3)

12        Sales:               From now, third week into Jan:,=So  I suppose the ↑Christmas

13                                period lots of Chri:stmas dos for you,=(or) was it as busy as you

14                                thought it was gonna be?

When we went back to the company to deliver some training, our message was “Stop building rapport!” We don’t really mean that ‘rapport’ (whatever it is) is bad, but doing it in such an obvious way should stop: stop doing all this chat with someone who has no interest in it. This is because we don’t see any evidence that (potential) clients have any interest in the chat; they don’t join in with or collaboratively respond.

Phoning the doctor’s surgery

Next, I’m going to show you something that will again be a very recognisable activity – phoning the doctors to make an appointment. We were commissioned by a group of GPs who wanted to understand how receptionists could make patients’ experience of calling the surgery better. Obviously, what we were after were things that didn’t cost anything, given the state of NHS funding etcetera, so we wanted to find ways that the receptionists could improve those initial bits of contact. So let’s see if you can see the problem in this first call. The receptionist is going to answer the phone and the patient will request an appointment.

1          Reception:       >Good< mornin:g, surgery: Cath speaking,

2                                              (1.6)

3          Patient:            Hello have you got an appointment for Frida:y

4                                  afternoon or teatime please.

5                                              (0.4)

6          Reception:       ­This Friday.

7                                              (1.1)

8          Patient:            Yeah,

9          Reception:       Uh I’m sorry we’re fully booked on Friday.

At line 9,  “we’re fully booked on Friday” is the answer to the question, “can I get an appointment on Friday afternoon?” What should happen next? Propose another time; offer something else, don’t just say no. What is going to be interesting, as you see this unfold, is that the receptionist treats the call as over. The receptionist is going to reiterate the fact that “we’re fully booked”, and you will hear that the patient can’t quite believe that this is the end of the call. You’ll hear the patient desperately clinging on to try to stay in the call.

10                                            (1.6)

11        Patient:            Right.

12                                            (0.3)

13        Reception:       (º(     ) fully booked.º)

14        Patient:            Okay,

15                                            (0.3)

16        Reception:       Okay.

17                                            (0.4)

18        Patient:            Yeah, ºu:º=o­kay, [uhm,]

19        Reception:                                      [ than]k yo[u:]

Lines 18 and 19 are really important: where the brackets overlap is where the talk is also in overlap. As the receptionist says “thank you”, indicating the call is over, the patient is trying to vocalise something to stay in the conversation. These sorts of ‘crashes’ at the end of calls happened quite frequently.

What you can see here is that it is a huge effort on the patient to achieve anything. Service is not going to be offered by the receptionist. We very quickly established the notion of burden on the patient to try to get service. Saying something like, “Would you like me to check for next week?”, at line 9, would remove the burden from the patient to get service.

We also found patient burden at the ends of calls. What you will see is that the business has been done; an appointment has been made, but often the receptionist would start to end the call before the patient had had confirmation of what’s has been arranged.

1          Reception:       O:kay then,

2                                              (0.5)

3          Patient:            [So it’s th-    ]

4          Reception:       [Thank ­you,]

5                                              (0.5)

6          Patient:            ºNº that’s the sixteenth?

7          Reception:       =The sixte:enth, [   at ten  pa]st=

8          Patient:                                       [Okay then.]

9          Reception:       =eleven.

We get another of these crashes in overlap (lines 7-8) while the patient is clinging onto the call to get confirmation of their appointment. Again the burden is on the patient to achieve confirmation.

Having identified these two instances of patient burden, we coded bunches 100s of calls from the three surgeries we were studying to see how they were doing on the GP survey. We found an almost perfect correlation: the more burden or effort on the patient to get service, the lower the score for that particular item on the survey.

Image removed.

Now, if one was going to train receptionists to do something different in their calls with patients, what would you train them to do, unless you’d actually had a look under the bonnet, at the engine of talk, the machinery, to find out what it is that makes a difference? Our findings are really simple: offer something else, if you can’t say yes right away, and confirm whatever’s happening next at the end of calls. But my suspicion is, if a ‘communication expert’ got hold of some receptionists, they would be training them to say things like “how are you today?” with a smile in their voice, and that wouldn’t make anyone feel any better at all…

Suicide prevention

The next thing I want to show you is rather sombre. I’m just starting some work with the Metropolitan Police, and we’re looking at the field recordings made of suicide prevention. These are police officers – hostage negotiators – who are trying to negotiate with someone who is threatening suicide. I want you to think of the communication that happens between the suicidal person and the negotiator in this way: A person that is threatening suicide is at the top of a spiral, and they are going down that spiral as the communication evolves. Things can happen, that the police officer says, that bring them back up the spiral. What we’re trying to look at is every turn the police officer produces that seems to not get agreement or alignment from the suicidal person, which takes them slightly down the spiral, or things that the officers do that bring them back up the spiral.

I’m going to show you one example of this. The case had a happy ending; the person was rescued at the end. The suicidal woman is stood on a chair in her house, she has a noose around her neck and she is threatening to kick the chair away. She’s locked in the house. The front door is open, but there’s another grill-type door which is locked and the police can’t get to her. I’m going to show you a very short example, and now that you’ve seen enough of conversation analysis you will spot straight away what is working and what is not working. The police officer first issues an instruction, “can you just please put both feet back on the chair”.

1          Police:             And just stand- ↑or put both feet back on

2                                  the (t-) chair for a start, (.) just do that at

3                                  least. please. 

4                                              (1.0)

5          Suicidal:           No,=it’s happening. 

6                                              (1.2)

If we were coding this, we would see that a direct instruction to do something doesn’t work; we get a “no” in response. Now let’s see something that does work.

7          Police:             It doesn’t have to happen yet though does it.

8                                              (0.2)

9          Suicidal:           °No°,

Given that the suicidal person isn’t doing it right now, then this is something that’s quite easy for the suicidal person to agree with, and that’s what we’re after.

So the person agrees with that, and we are coming back up the spiral a bit again. But now you’re going to see the mistake, and you’ll spot it straight away in terms of what happens next:

10        Police:             >It doesn’t< have to happen.

11                                [>It doesn’t have to<] happen at all.

12        Suicidal:           [         (mm:)              ]

13        Suicidal:           Yeah it does,

“It doesn’t have to happen at all” is quite different from “It doesn’t have to happen yet”. “It doesn’t have to happen at all” is quite challenging for the person who’s stood there basically threatening suicide – “well what are you doing here if you’re not threatening suicide” – it has that face-threatening quality to it. And now we’re going back down the spiral.

We’re at the start of this research, but I’m hoping you can see the value in trying to identify what are the things that just inches a suicidal person down or back up, because that’s the kind of thing we need to have in training. What we’re after also is the fact that while the police officers are really, really good at what they do, like anyone who talks they don’t know what they did afterwards; they can’t pin it down in a way that we need to be able to pin it down for training. And what that often means is that communications training is full of stereotypical things: “How are you today?” “Smile, because everyone likes to hear a smile!” … I’m hamming it up a bit, but people get trained to do things that are quite often wrong.

And they also get assessed on things that are wrong in the way that they might be assessed on their communications skills.

The natural laboratory

My final set of examples will show you how you can treat the world of recorded interaction in loads of different settings, as a natural laboratory, and the next setting I’m going to talk to you about is where I started a lot of this work – neighbour disputes and mediation. Back in the 90s when I finished my PhD, I wanted to have a look at a topic that psychologists hadn’t studied at that point. And at the time there was a lot of stuff on the TV, Neighbours from Hell, Neighbours at War, and so I thought I’m going to get interested in neighbour relationships.

But what I didn’t want to do, as you might have gathered from the type of work that I’m presenting here, was to conduct surveys, and say to people, “You’re a neighbour, tell me how that feels” or interview people about it or get participants to act behind a one-way mirror: “Can you just pretend you’re a neighbour disputer, pretend you’re in a neighbour relationship and I’ll watch you while you do things that look like neighbours”. Which is very typically the way psychologists work, to take people out of the setting of interest, everyday life, and stick them in a research-type of setting and expect them to reproduce the thing that they’re actually interested in, which is somewhere else, somewhere over there.

In order to get access to neighbours being neighbours in a natural setting, in a way that would have happened whether or not I was there, I came across this service, a community mediation service. People telephone and say “I’ve got this problem with music next door”, noise next door, whatever it might be. And the mediation service will try to sort out that problem. I contacted a service and they agreed for me to record mediation itself. What they do is talk to Party One, then to Party Two, then get both parties together. I recorded those sessions.

In turns out, though, that not many people end up in mediation because they don’t see it as relevant to solving their neighbour dispute. They want the police, the environmental health, the council; they want their neighbour evicted or arrested, or they want a noise abatement order, they want them ASBOed. So there’s a problem here. And this problem cashed itself out in initial enquiry calls to mediation services, which is where I ended up collecting a lot of data. The mediation services that were not able to give me a lot of actual mediation  recordings offered instead to, “give you our calls into mediation services and you can have a look at them”. So that’s what I did.

Very quickly, I learned that when people call mediation services, they’ve never heard of them, putting you (the audience and reader!) in the same position as the callers you’ll see. Callers don’t really know what mediation is, and when you’re in a dispute, any psychologist will tell you that you don’t want someone to say “we’re impartial, we’re not on your side”. What you want is for someone to say “You’re lovely and they’re horrible. You’re reasonable, they’re unreasonable and we’re going to arrest them or evict them”. They want someone to constrain the behaviour of the other party. And you can start to imagine how this all makes mediation a hard sell.

If you think back to the racetrack, and think about zooming in on a particular moment on the racetrack, what we’re going to look at is something that happened in almost all of the telephone calls into mediation, which is an explanation of what the service actually does. Now, when you phone your GP to make an appointment, there’s not a point in that conversation where the receptionist says, “Let me tell you a bit about GP services, and doctors, and what they do”, because we already know what the service is and what the service does. But that does need to happen in mediation calls because no-one knows what it is.

So here is an example of a mediator at that point on the race track, explaining what mediation is to a prospective client.

1          Mediation:      What we do as a mediation service we: um: (1.1)

2                                  we help people: (.) sort out- (0.4) their own uh

3                                  differences so .hhh we wouldn’t take si:des,

4                                  we wouldn’t- .h (0.7) try an’ decide who’s right

5                                  or wrong but would- .hh would try to help you

6                                  both um:: (0.8) sort out uh: the differences

7                                  between: (0.2) between you.

If this sounded like an enticing proposition to the caller, it should reveal itself in the next line, at line 8 – inside our natural laboratory. So at line 8, we’ve got a kind of litmus test; we’ve got the answer to the question: was that turn effective? The answer is in the next turn. The answer is inside these calls; the caller is either going to say yes or no to mediate within the call itself. All of the things that seem to be working to push this caller, to tilt this caller towards a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ are inside this call. There’s no point in asking a caller later “Why did you say ‘no’ to mediation?” as most researchers might do. They’ll tell you something, but they’re not going to tell you where it is along the way where they started to disengage or really engage with the service.

What I found was that mediators explained mediation in one of two ways. They either explained it like this, in an ideological way. “This is the ethos of mediation, we don’t take sides, we don’t judge, we don’t say who’s right or wrong, we basically facilitate you sorting your own problems out”, they explain the ethos of mediation.

At line 8, what we’re after is anything from a “mm-hmm” to a “mm” [mildly interested] to an “MM” [enthusiastic] to a “MM” “What a relief, that’s exactly what I need, book me in”.

8                                              (2.5)

We all learned earlier that 0.7 was enough to tell us that a relationship is on the rocks, so two and a half seconds tells us that there’s no way on earth that this caller is going to become a client of the mediation service. So let’s see what happens.

9          Caller:              Well I-hh (1.2) to be qui:te honest I don’t think

10                                she’d cooperate.

Any turn that starts with a “Well”, you will now know, is not going to be at the start of a turn that gives you the answer you were looking for.

“So do you want to go out for dinner with me tonight?”


“Does my bum look big in this?”


If you get a “Well” you know that it’s not going to be a straightforward response of the type you’re after. So we have the “Well”, we have the big delay that’s a sign again that silence does speak volumes and it tells you here that they’re not going to say “Yes”. But just notice the way the caller says “No”. What they say is entirely consistent with the world-view of someone in a dispute, which is, “I’m lovely and they’re horrible. She’s the kind of person who won’t mediate”. If the mediator doesn’t know their racetrack and they don’t know what the caller is likely to say at any given opportunity is “the other person’s the kind of person who won’t mediate”, they won’t get clients. And if they don’t get clients then they’re not going to exist as a service. So although mediation services are generally badly funded, existing on a shoestring and all the rest of it, they nevertheless are in a business and they do need to get clients.

What we have, then, is this idea of a natural laboratory where we look at all the explanations of mediations that work, and all the ones that don’t, in terms of what happens next but also what happens when they reach the end of the call, whether they say yes or no. And what I found was that those ethos-based explanations don’t work. What does work is to say, “Mediation is a process, this happens, then this happens, and then this happens and then this happens”, and people reveal that there are buying into this service with their “mm, hmm, yep, right” sorts of responses. They’re into an explanation that’s about a process, rather than about an ethos.

So we’ve learned one important thing that to be taken back to mediators, which I’ve done with 100s of them, both here and in the US, to try and re-train them to explain mediation in a way that we know works, rather than to keep using an explanation that doesn’t work, (and which they’re trained to use). They don’t realise by using that explanation every single time that they’re not getting clients; they need to explain it in another way.

How to talk so people listen

The final example of ‘How to talk so people listen’ is going to be one word that you will see has amazing power to get people to do something that you want them to do that they’ve been resisting. So given that I’m going to teach you this today, you must use it carefully, when you have the power! We’re going to start with mediation again, and we’re going to see the start of another call. We’re nearly at the end of the racetrack, we’re nearly at the end of the call, and the mediator has explained what mediation is and is now asking the question:

1          Mediation:      Does that sound .hhh like it might be

2                                  helpful to you?

The answer to whether or not this thing that the mediator has just explained is going to be in line 3. What we want is a “yes, it sounds very useful, book me in”,

3                                              (0.7)

.. but there’s that seven-tenths of a second again! So we know that it’s probably not going to be a yes, it’s going to be something else.

4          Caller:              I- uh- (0.2) it might be but um:: (0.3) I’m

5                                  not too sure at this stage about (0.6) you

6                                  know, how long- y- seein’ this: gi:rl, at all,

It “might be but” is a polite turn-down. “At all” is quite strong, like there’s no chance on earth that I want to be in a room with this girl.

Now, the mediator taking the call is amazing, and she is going to do something magical next. What she probably knows is the caller might start to say something like, “she’s the kind of person you can’t talk to”, as it very commonly comes up. So here the mediator is going to pre-empt that and do something magical. In training, what I would do with mediators is say, “what should you do next? How are you going to get this caller to go from looking like they’re going to say no a yes in ten words or less? How are you going to do that?” And what’s interesting is that they can’t tell you. Some of them do it, I’ve got recordings of them doing it, but they can’t tell you what it is. And this tells you why if you’re going to build any kind of communication training at all, you need to have a conversation analyst looking at what works, because otherwise you’ll be training people to do the wrong thing. With good intentions, because it sounds like it should work, but it won’t.

So here is what works, and I want you to notice the point at which the caller comes back to respond to the mediator, because the caller is going to start responding well before the mediator has even finished saying the thing that they do next, and that’s the clue to why it works.

7          Mediation:                                                                     [W’yeah.

8                                  =↓Yeh, but you’d be willin’ t’see two of our

9                                  med[iators jus’ t’talk about it all. .hhhh]

10        Caller:                     [Oh of course.    Yeah.   Yeah        ] 

11                                definitely.

“You’d be willing to see two of our med-” is as far as the mediator has gone in her turn before the caller comes back with “Oh of course, yeah yeah definitely”, which is a very strong uptake and a very strong turnaround for the mediator. The mediator knows her racetrack well. If the other person is the kind of person who won’t mediate, and you, caller, are going to tell me that a lot, then you must be the kind of person who will, because you’re lovely, and they’re not; you’re reasonable, and they’re not, so if they’re unreasonable and they’re the kind of person who won’t, then you must be the kind of person who will. And you get this in the “Oh, of course”, the caller doesn’t just say “yes”, they say “Oh, of course”, like “I was always willing, you didn’t even need to have to ask me that”.

So having identified this in a call, I want you again to realise that these are just conversations that have been hanging around, waiting for someone to record them, pick something up, go “ooh – now that’s interesting, I wonder if I can find any more of those ...”

1          Mediator:        I’m sure he would be will:ing

2                                  t’come in and see our mediat[or:?        

3          Caller:                                                             [Oh yeah:

I’m sure you will have noticed is that the mediator proposes, “Well, you’d be willing to do X£, and £I’m sure that you’re someone who would be willing to do X”. The mediator proposes something about the kind of person the caller is, which is massively insightful on the part of the mediator, to understand what it is that the caller wants. The mediator can’t say “you sound lovely, that your partner [if it’s family mediation], or your neighbour sounds vile”, but what they can do is say that you are the kind of person who will do this. And it works.

1          Mediation:      I just- wanted to see if you would be

2                                  willing to attend a: a session as well.

3          Caller:              I’m more than happy to go down that

4                                  route.


1          Mediation:      Okay then, so would you be willin’, f’two

2                                  of our mediators to call round and talk

3                                  to you about it all?

4          Caller:              Yeh I’m more than (willing).

They just keep on coming!

So I started looking at calls to family mediation as well, just to see, do the same explanations work and not work? Yes. Does “willing” still work? Yes. Here’s another one:

1          Mediation:      =Is that something that you would be

2                                  willing to [do:.       ]=

3          Caller:                              [I would-]=I ↑would be willing to

4                                  ↓do it.=ye[s:.              ]

5          Mediation:                       [.ptk (th)at]’s grea:[t.      ]

6          Caller:                                                             [Just-] (.)

7                                  do anything just to try and get to see my

8                                  son,=you know,


1          Caller:              […] me brother went through a divorce, ’n

2                                  he- he says he found the mediation a

3                                  waste of time.  (.) .hhh (.) [and ] me an’

4                                  me wife just- do not get on.


24        Mediation:      .pthhh ↑Would you be willing to come in to

25                                see ↓our mediator for a cha:t:,

26                                            (1.5)

27        Caller:              ↑Uh:m (0.2) yeah I ↓will.

So here the caller is very resistant, and keeps going with their resistance to mediation until the mediator says, “Would you be willing to come in and see our mediator for a chat?”And, after a gap, the caller says: “Yeah, I will”.

If you’re thinking, “well, this is mediation, does it work anywhere else?”, here is a telesales person phoning another business – a windows double glazing company – asking if they will be willing to do this rather tedious sounding experiment with the mail.

1          Sales:               So:: >f’r us< to do this we’re asking

2                                  businesses in your area if you w’d

3                                  be willing to send and recei:ve two

4                                  to four items of test mail on a

5                                  weekly ba:sis,

6          Client:                         Th[at’s fine, yeh,

7          Sales:                              [Okay,

Even through the anonymisation, you can probably hear that the salesperson has got quite irritating intonation, so ‘effective communication’ is not all about whether you sound lovely and cuddly on the phone. There is something about the words and the grammar that seem to tilt people’s behaviour.

I’m hoping that now you’ve seen that how, once you know your racetrack, you can develop better research-based training for people to communicate. Once you know all of the things that work, along the way, and what doesn’t work, you can do what I do with the ‘Conversation Analytic Role-play Method’ (CARM). This involves having people live through real encounters of the type that they work in, whether that’s police hostage negotiators or receptionists or mediators, or police interviewers, or salespeople, or whoever that is that I’m studying. What we do is get them to live through transcripts, in real-time, and then stop it at a key juncture and ask, “What are you going to do next? What are you going to do to change that person from a no to a yes? What are you going to do to stop that person going down the spiral?” And the method is very persuasive because people see things that they might have been doing for years not working, and something else that they’ve never thought about but that works, and then they learn in that way.

Let’s end with this familiar logo for the charity Save the Children. We all know what that is. I don’t know if you’ve seen the version that says “We Save the Children – will you?” So,  are you the sort of person who saves children?! How can you say “No” to that? There’s something about that verb, that “will”, in “are you willing?”, that works in moral sorts of circumstances. Are you the type of person to mediate? Yes or no. What was really interesting about the mediation “willings” is that if you ask someone “Are you interested in mediation?” they might say yes or no. But if you ask them if they’re willing to mediate, that requires them saying something about the type of person that they are, and that’s why you can see that “willing” works in all of these different settings.

So, if we change words, we change outcomes.

Jon, I’m not sure whether you should ask people if they’re “willing” to go on a date with you or not, [audience laughs] but it works best after resistance. Which sounds rather dodgy. Ahem.


Image removed.

Jon: Thank you so much Professor Stokoe, that was absolutely fascinating, and thank you to the audience. We’re going to have lots of questions hopefully from you now. You seem like the kind of people who would be “willing” [audience laughs] to ask decent questions, and then pick up our free copies, and tell Latitude how brilliant the session was on Twitter… you definitely seem like those kind of people. Who would like to start it off? Who has questions for Professor Stokoe?

Q: Have you, or any of your colleagues, worked with politicians to help them with their conversation, to use social science to be more persuasive to get people to vote?

Jon: Are you suggesting that people write politician’s speeches, maybe Theresa May didn’t write that speech herself possibly? Professor Stokoe, have you worked with politicians, looked at their conversations?

Liz: Two quick answers to that question: first of all, going back into my field of 30-40 years ago, one of the first people to look at political speechwriting bringing in formal conversation analysis, showed that when we deliver a speech - and you’ll notice it every time you watch one now - that politicians need three things – three items in a list, and then the audience knows when to applaud. So “I’m going to do X, Y and Z”, clap clap clap. That was the work of Max Atkinson, as a conversation analyst. Second, I have a PhD student who is just completing. She has been looking at constituents both phoning their constituency surgeries and going to surgeries with MPs. Because, believe it or not, despite the fact that ordinary constituents can go and see their MP almost any time they like, there’s no research at all on what happens in that encounter. Her name is Emily Hofstetter, you can find her and read her PhD. Thanks.

Jon: Okay, who’s next, another question at the back there.

Q: Is there anything to say that these things go in trends? If everyone started to use that word “willing”, would it lose some of its power?

Liz: I’d love to be that influential! I think it’s an empirical question. Given that we’ve been using things like “hello” for quite a long time and it hasn’t got old yet. So I think there are words and grammar and verbs that just generally do the things that they do and always will. But we also know that, like the Save the Children advert, seeing things over and over again means we don’t notice them and they stop working. If you imagine the difference between arriving at a railway station these days and it’s an actual voice speaking to you rather than the recorded message, you’re going to hear it because you’re so used to hearing one recordings that you kind of stop hearing them. So I think the answer is maybe. But I’d like to first of all have the problem, and then try and solve it.

Jon: The thing that I find fascinating is the examples that you give, you say, “And the person here now does something magical, intuitively they are brilliant at this piece of conversation”, but then you’re also giving examples of things on cold calls where everyone must know that that report building does not work. You just think: “why is that still happening?” There seems to be that discrepancy between how naturally good at conversation a lot of people are, and in these situations, why does this persist?

Liz: I encounter this problem all the time, the disconnect between actual practice and the things people are trained to do. The things people are trained to do often intuitively sound right. For example, police officers are trained to ask a question, the very first question that they would ask a suspect, a very open-ended, “tell me about…”, with no particular sort of agenda in it, or no direction in it. But it tends to generate not really the kinds of accounts that the police officers are actually after. The questions that get the thing they’re actually after is a “Can you tell me about your day up until the point you were arrested” – it’s a “can you”, yes/no question grammatically, and it’s got the verb “arrest” in it, and that works much better than “tell me about your day from when you woke up until the point that we met”, which gets these very long, convoluted types of accounts. And yet people are persistently trained to do the things that don’t work in settings of all kinds.

Q: I wanted to ask a slightly political question. I spent ten years working for MPs and phoning constituents which was really interesting because what they say on the phone is different from what they say in surgeries. I was going to ask about polling, because we’ve all seen polling massively discredited, we’ve seen someone who has knocked on doors and asked people “will you vote for me?”, but then what people say to your face and what they say on the phone is really different. Why do people lie to pollsters? Do they lie to pollsters?

Liz: I’ve only got a lay explanation of that really. When you look at lots and lots of real encounters, people don’t really like saying “No” to the person that they’re saying no to. So people will say things like, “Oh, that’s really kind of you” but they don’t do, “No” in a bald kind of way. So I’d put it down to the fact that you’re trapped in an encounter and tend to do the polite thing.

Jon: I’ll just chip in with one explanation of the General Election discrepancy that I read, which was that the people who were more likely to get it right, or closer to the final result, were the academic studies, because they had a method of gathering the information where they would phone a person, and if that person didn’t answer, they would phone them again, and they would keep phoning until they got the answer from that person. Whereas many of the polling organisations would just – and this is what I read – would have a big list and would randomly select people, and if they couldn’t get the information from that person they would move on to somebody else, and for whatever reason, Conservatives – I don’t know, maybe they live further away from their phones – they were struggling to speak to a representative sample of Conservatives.

And I think that also in terms of the conversation, the sphere it goes on in, in social media particularly, I think there were a lot of people around the referendum and around Brexit who realised the morning they woke up with the result that maybe for the past few weeks they’d been living in a liberal echo chamber, and just hearing other people with the same views as them. We were talking about this before we came on, that actually the more these social media spaces are driven by algorithms, the more that distorts something that’s already distorted; we network with people who are like us, then if the algorithm starts showing us other people’s views according to our preferences, it could be argued that those echo chambers are just getting more and more separate. And the piece I read about it, there was a piece in The Guardian last week, and it said that we’re ending up with countries where half of the country doesn’t know what the other half of the country thinks. There’s this big divide happening.

Q: Is it impolite not to ask how somebody is when responding to a telephone call? Because I don’t, because I get fed up of people telling me their medical issues. [Laughter from audience] So I chose not to go down that route.

Jon: Is it impolite to not ask how somebody is? There is actually a German word for somebody who, when you ask them how they are, they tell you!

Liz: It depends on who you’re talking to. And it depends on whether you’re – we find that those things, the “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” are done in a very pro-forma way between people who know each other and they ask “How are you?” afterwards. So you do the initial “how are yous” and then get into the real thing. But certainly when it’s a cold call or someone you don’t know so well and then they ask “How are you?”, you could just not answer or just say “Fine” and then move on to your thing. When people do know each other, that’s the place to do it, and it might be quite odd to not do it to someone who’s done it to you, and they do know you, and they might be expecting a, “Fine thanks, how are you?”.

Q (another person): I wondered about regional variation, so where I’m from, people wouldn’t really say hello, like in the North West, they’d say “Alright?” and it would mean “Hello”, but I’ve noticed that if I say that to someone in London, or even an English speaker overseas, they would take it as a literal, “How are you?” question, rather than “Hello”. I’ve lived in London for ten years and it still takes me aback that people actually tell me how they are.

Liz: There are different ways to get the same thing done. If you’re looking at a greeting, and people say, “Hi”, “You alright?” or whatever, it’s still a greeting and so you would see how greetings get done as the thing of interest. From my point of view, it’s not that it has to be “Hello”; what is it that you’re doing that can be in the greetings slot. But in terms of people misunderstanding, that’s interesting. What will happen is a sequence of repair whilst you will recalibrate yourselves and get yourselves moving smoothly back on the racetrack, rather than bumping along the rumble strips where neither of you know exactly what you’re doing. But talk’s magic; it fixes itself all the time. We right ourselves all the time. So that’s exactly what will happen.

Q: I’m interested in how this refers to written communications. In the field I work in, the public sector, people quite often aren’t at their desks, so email the best way to get hold of people. Will “willing” work in written form?

Liz: The evidence so far is, yes, it will. But be careful – willing works best after resistance, so it shouldn’t be your opening gambit, it should only be if people are resisting what you’re trying to get them to do.

Q: Please can you share the formula for a successful cold call?

[Laughter from audience]

Liz: See me later. [Laughter]

Jon: She can but there has to be a price for that! One of the fascinating things about your work is that the practical and commercial applications must be absolutely huge. I always wonder what group would you like to work with next? Is there any way in which you think the talk that’s going on ‘in the wild’ is so fascinating you just want to get your hands on it?

Liz: It would have to be the non-commercial type. I was in John Lewis loos last week and overheard a woman in the next cubicle, who obviously didn’t realise that I was there. Her phone rang, and I thought, “Ooh, is she going to answer it?”, and she was obviously thinking “Should I? There’s nobody here, I’ll answer it”. I’d love to have a recording of that “I’m just in the loo in John Lewis!” conversation. I like those moments. Or in dressing rooms, or on the bus - mundane ordinary chat.

Jon: They’re good loos. [Laughter from audience]

Liz: I’m not really interested in Latitude loo chats. With respect!

Q: Does the accent of a person going through to conversation have an impact on talking so people listen?

Liz: I would say to that is that we tend to over-prioritise what we think the effects of those things will be on conversation, a bit like gender as well, so people will often assume that men and women talk differently, and that people from different ethnic groups will talk differently, or with different accents. But it’s a bit – back to your question, my starting point is: how do we get anything done? And let’s look at any group that you care to mention, whether it be women or men or people from the North, people from the South, whatever. Let’s look at the actions they do. Do they do greetings, do they do requests, do they do assessments, do they do alignment, do they do invitations? Let’s look at how they’re built. Conversation analysts are increasingly studying cross-linguistic, cross-cultural encounters. In terms of the technical way in which turns happen, how sequences of things are built and how actions are built, we tend to imagine there’s more variation than we think. Partly because we’ve been fed for years things like, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”, so we assume it’s true. But if you look at actual encounters there’s very little, if anything, that would show you that men do “pass the salt” one way and women do it another because they’re men or women.

Q: Have you noticed any differences between people of different ages? I work in a secondary school and trying to get kids to be “willing” to do things, they’re not always the most willing people… sometimes they are, most of the kids. Is there anything you notice between different age groups?

Liz: Kids are another planet; I don’t study them! But there are lots of conversation analysts that do study kids, including things like how kids do or don’t respond to directives and instructions, and there is a lot of that work out there. If you email me I can send you some stuff.

Q: I was interested in, because you always hear about the power of silence, that clearly there were issues with the silences here, could you use silence to deliberately discomfort someone, like with a PPI call for example?

Liz: Silence is one of those things that we have a lay sense of what it does, so people will often say, “I use silence to do X and Y”. But silence isn’t the thing we think it is. If you’re face-to-face with somebody, and you ask them a question, a delayed response indicates a problem of some kind, but people will show you in the way they’re moving their bodies and eyes and so on, what kind of problem it is. So they might do a kind of, “um, err, do-do-do”. Silence is very active, it’s not a robotic nothingness. So that’s one thing. The longest silence that I’ve recorded in any of the encounters I’ve studied is a police interview with a suspect and it was something like 11.6 and the police officer has asked, “If somebody kicked you in the head with the same force that you kicked your victim, what injuries do you think you would sustain?” And then this is 11.6 [exhales twice loudly], and then he eventually says, “I don’t think I can handle the question actually”. So the police officers wait it out, but they still don’t get what they’re after. So silence certainly, if you wait and wait and wait… but it’s actually quite hard to sustain that length of silence before going in with a new question.

Jon: Unless you’re Stewart Lee. The use of silence in comedy I think, TV comedy kind of 10-15 years ago, a whole generation of comedians realised the power of what isn’t being said, awkward silences and the reaction that this can produce in an audience.

Thankfully, there weren’t too many awkward silences this afternoon. We need to wrap up, but thank you so much again for coming. [Audience applause]. As I said, free copies, help yourself, please do go onto Twitter and let us know what you thought, let Latitude know what you thought of the session because I’d really love to be back here next near. It just remains for me once more to thank Professor Elizabeth Stokoe, thank you very much!

- Thanks to Latitude Festival and in particular Tania Harrison; to the Wellcome Trust; and to Kate Brennan for transcription assistance. Listen to the podcast version.