Articles, Education

The Art of Conversation

 January 26, 2017

By  alswainger

What kind of conversationalist are you?

Ever thought about how you take part in a conversation?

Or how the people you talk to behave when you are in a conversation with them?

How does that change if there's just two of you or if you're in a group?


The simple version that we tend to think happens is that one person talks while the other listens and that you take turns with that process.

A less desirable version, which we can observe fairly regularly, is that one person talks while the other waits for their turn to speak without listening. We can be quick to accuse our conversational partner of doing this while not always being willing to admit that we do it ourselves. It often happens quite sneakily without us realising. How regularly we behave like that will make us more or less fun to talk to inevitably. Of course, some people are able to spend vast amounts of time apparently deep in conservation without ever considering that they have never bothered to listen to the other.

Beneath the broad sweeps there the more subtle signals and noises. A certain amount of eye contact, affirmative nods, grunts and syllables to maintain the flow and at least create the illusion of attentive listening are considered polite and normal in most cases. The absence of any of these could be interpreted as disinterest or deliberate rudeness. A common side effect for speakers confronted with this is to meet the discomfort with rambling. Talking past the point where meaning still needs to be conveyed, words erupt simply to fill the perceived awkward silence. No surprise that this is a common interview technique...

...A less welcome variation still is that of repeating parts of the other person's sentence. Or, worse even, interrupting to fill in words or finish sentences by talking over the top. Superimposing your own thoughts at the expense of someone else's will always bring a negative responsive, whether apparent or not. Strategies you may use or encounter in those circumstances might be a raised voice, continuing the original thought; waiting for the interruption to subside; or simply abandoning speaking altogether in deference to the new speaker. When I find myself doing this I try to hand the conversation back as quickly as possible with an 'I'm sorry, I interrupted, what were you saying?'. Sometimes this can jumpstart their side of the conversation again or at the very least hopefully minimise their annoyance at having been hi-jacked mid-thought.

​In a one-on-one conversation this kind of etiquette is much easier to adhere to and can happen naturally. As the numbers of people increase the rules of conversation can become much less diplomatic. Often people will attempt to dominate the proceedings by steering the conversation in terms of their favourite topics. (or sometimes just talking very loudly and authoritatively about subjects they know very little about. Volume and confidence are an inadequate but bizarrely effective substitute for genuine knowledge). They may maintain this course by talking across people, speaking at greater volume so they are hard to ignore, or taking advantage of brief gaps in the flow to change the subject matter back if it has drifted away from their preferred areas. If this is successful they can 'hold court'. If not the conversations will perhaps fragment into smaller units. This is far more likely once the group size reaches four or more.

Depending on the type of conversational style and how we feel about our role as contributors to it we may react in a variety of ways. A genuine back and forth where the words of one speaker lead directly to a considered, topical and relevant response from another are immensely satisfying and can actively increase our feelings of self-esteem. We feel respected and valued. The degree of speaking and listening expected from either party is going to vary from time to time. So long as it evens out in the long run then there is no harm in one party dominating on occasion. If it happens regularly, and is always the same party dominating, then the desire for conversation between those people is going to wear thin after a while. Likewise, if we are constantly interrupted or corrected it's going to be hard to want to keep talking to those people.

In contrast to the personality type that tries to dominate or 'win' in a group conversational situation there are those that will retreat. If the subject matter is engaging but they have nothing to contribute they may be content to listen but add nothing of their own. If they have nothing to contribute and don't find the subject matter interesting they may withdraw altogether. Either mentally or sometimes physically.​Next time you watch a band, or take part in one yourself, try imagining it as a group conversation. Look out for how people take part. Do they dominate or contribute sympathetically? Do they always behave in the same way or do they change depending on the type of conversation taking place?

The best place to watch this happening is in ensembles where people improvise. Their personalities will be quite clearly on display if you know what to look out for.

At any given moment you will probably have :

A principal speaker - either delivering a melody or soloing -

and the listeners - ideally accompanying sympathetically.

A soloist is most engaging to listen to when they know their subject well. They speak flowingly, with authority, about things dear to their hearts.

The accompanists will seem most sympathetic when you are less aware of their contributions. Affirmative nods and grunts may take the form of fills or simply the natural punctuation of a groove.  These are valuable and important parts of making the musical conversation seem natural and 'easy'.

If the fills become too explicit, regular or drawn out however they can start to have an adverse effect by interrupting the thought processes of the main voice or even sabotaging it altogether.

When this situation arises you may find the soloist :

              1)  Raises their voice to try and continue to be heard by increasing their volume

              2)  Start rambling by playing more notes than they otherwise would if they weren't being interrupted.

              3) Lose their train of thought and become disjointed and confused in their phrasing.

              4) Become angry / frustrated and deliberately start talking / playing  in a weirder, angular and more aggressive way that might seem out of character.

If you look back through the earlier part of the article I'm sure you'll have no trouble translating other conversational habits into musical interactions too. You'll probably have several of your own to add that I haven't mentioned.

What kind of conversationalist are you?


​Al has performed, recorded and taught all over the country and internationally for more than 25 years.

Highlights include sessions, tours and workshops with :

Peter King, Grice, Paul Jones, P.P. Arnold, Scott Hamilton, Siobhan McCrudden, Gary Bamford, Gilad Atzmon, Mike Outram, Alan Barnes, Ant Law and many more as well as h​is own projects :

Pointless Beauty, Biophosmos, Snow Giants and Mahatmosphere.

As an educator he has taught for schools, colleges and privately for more than 25 years and has a BA (Hons) / PGCE in Music.

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