Conversation analysis and persuasive language, with Liz Stokoe

A talk with Elizabeth Stokoe (twitter: @lizstokoe), who researches and writes about conversation analysis (CA), and who is the author of the book ‘Talk: The Science of Conversation.’ This is my second talk about CA (see my talk with Saul Albert). Transcript included, below. Topics include:

  • What are some of the most useful things Stokoe has learned from conversation analysis?
  • Why is the “most communication is non-verbal” concept wrong and yet so popular?
  • What can CA teach us about how to better persuade others and avoid alienating them? And how is that related to attempts to reduce political polarization and animosity?
  • What does the analysis of comedy (like Liz’s analysis of scenes from TV show Friends) teach us about conversational rules?
  • How do the “turns we take” and the conversational rules we abide by help define us in others’ eyes?
  • Does the common perception that men and women talk differently have much scientific support?
  • What’s wrong with a lot of the focus on building rapport?

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Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding others and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please consider leaving me a rating on iTunes or Spotify, or the podcast platform you listen on; I’d greatly appreciate it. 

In this episode’s interview, recorded January 13th, 2022, I talk to Elizabeth Stokoe about conversation analysis; the scientific analysis of how we talk to each other. This is the second episode I’ve done on conversation analysis. A few months ago I interviewed Saul Albert on this topic, and if you want a great introduction to conversation analysis, I’d recommend listening to that one first. 

Topics we cover in this episode include: 

  • Some of the most practically useful things Liz has found in her work
  • Why she finds it useful to analyze comedy scenes, like the scenes from the TV show Friends she includes in her book
  • How much language, and our rules around how we use language, form a big part of who we are and how others perceive us
  • How there’s a lot of bad information floating around about behavior, like the idea that most of our communication is non-verbal, or bad ideas about the importance of establishing rapport or how to establish rapport
  • With regards to political polarization, how the words we use can easily create animosity and more polarization if we’re not careful. Or on the other side, how if we think carefully about our language how we can be more persuasive and lower temperatures, and if you’re interested in polarization or just in how we persuade others, she makes what I think are some great and important points about strategies for that. And in there towards the end we talk a bit about covid-related messaging from governments and organizations, too. 

A little about Elizabeth Stokoe: she’s Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University. She conducts conversation analytic research to understand how talk works – from first dates to medical communication and from sales encounters to hostage negotiation. In addition to academic publishing, she is passionate about science communication, and has given talks at TED, New Scientist, Google, Microsoft, and The Royal Institution, and performed at Latitude and Cheltenham Science Festivals. Her book, Talk: The Science of Conversation, was published by Little, Brown (in 2018) and she’s the co-author on a book called Crisis Talk coming out later this year. Her research and biography were featured on BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific. She is a Wired Innovation Fellow and was awarded Honorary Fellowship of the British Psychological Society in 2021.

You can keep up with her work on Twitter; her handle is @lizstokoe. Okay, here’s the interview with Elizabeth Stokoe.

Zach Elwood: Hi Liz, welcome to the show. 

Elizabeth: Hi Zach, good to meet you.

Zach Elwood: When it comes to explaining to a lay audience the power of conversation analysis and what it can be used for, maybe you can give us some of your favorite examples that stand out for you.

Elizabeth: A couple spring to mind. One of them is an example that people quote back at me quite a lot these days, which I’m not sure is always a good thing. It’s one of the first bits of applied research that I did. I was trying to figure out when people telephone an organization, they don’t really know what the organization does and the organization’s interest is in getting this person who’s called up to become a client. What is it along that initial conversation that gets people to engage with that organization or starts to create disengagement? One of the things that I found in that research was that when people were offered a service, they weren’t really that interested in or they were resisting for all sorts of reasons. If they were asked if they were willing to take a first step in a process or something, they were much more likely to say yes and also to go from a no to a yes than they were when they were asked if they were interested in the service or would like to use the service. So this word “willing” seemed to get people to go from resistance or an outright no to a rather enthusiastic yes. Obviously, it seems like one of those one-word magic solutions to a lot of problems, but I think it’s important that we think about the context and the setting in which this was happening. And so, this was a setting in which the kind of person you are mattered. For example, if you go home to your partner tonight and say, ”Would you be willing to put the trash out or the bins out?” That’s a bit heavy. It implies that you were not willing to do it already. Whereas in the services that I was looking at, saying yes to whether you’re willing to do it would also give you an opportunity to say that you’re a decent human being and that seems to be why it worked.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, I was thinking about why that “willing” word was so effective. It seemed almost like a moral dare almost like, are you willing to show that you’re this kind of person, basically?

Elizabeth: Yeah, it’s a nice way to think about it. Actually, there’s a children’s charity in the UK called Save the Children and for a while they had a strapline, “We save the children, will you?” Which of course is quite the moral dare. But you can also start to see why it doesn’t just solve all your problems and one of the things that I later started to find was that if people were asked if they were willing to do something before they had the opportunity to even hear what the thing was or before they’d had the chance to weigh it up, then it didn’t work and people just thought it was a rather strange question to ask so early on in a conversation. So yeah, it doesn’t solve all the problems all the time. [laughs]

Zach Elwood: Yeah, you can imagine someone reading your book and trying to use that out of context like at a car dealership or something and just wouldn’t have the same impact.

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly. That’s why it’s my favorite example, but it constantly risks overuse or the wrong use or just getting that oversimplification. We want things to be simple, sometimes they’re not quite that simple.

Zach Elwood: At a car dealership, you can imagine people using it in some contexts where it’s like, “Are you willing to work with us to reach a deal or something?” Showing that you’re reasonable by willing to engage or something like that. 

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly. The other example that I think is a really compelling one is I did some research with a colleague, Rein Sikveland, for the last few years and it’s not that far away from mediation in a way, which is why we came to work in this environment, but it’s police crisis negotiation. What we were doing was working with police in the UK who provide the recordings that they make at the scene of quite traumatic things, where people are threatening their own life or the life of somebody else and recordings made by the police at the scene. What we were looking for was what gets everybody through this negotiation to a safe outcome and what seems to create friction or what reduces friction as you get there? A couple of things that are important to know about these scenarios, one of them is that they’re almost always a successful outcome. People generally calm down, but it can take a long time. And the police want to also make sure that whatever happens is as physically safe as possible. Because of course, if you’re stood somewhere precarious, then you may change your mind and not intend to jump, but you might slip. So there’s lots of reasons why having this conversation as smooth as possible is important. 

One of the other things that I think is important to understand the importance of doing conversation analysis on these recordings is that whatever happens in that conversation, the negotiator doesn’t know anything about the person that they’re talking to. So we tend to think about crisis sorts of conversations as needing a strategy fitted to the person that you’re talking to so their psychology or their personality, or their mental health history or something else but of course, we don’t know that because they’re a stranger. And so, the negotiator has only got the evidence of what the person in crisis actually says to go on to shape anything that they do. So everything that works is like every little turn is like a little natural experiment. I said this to Land, or it didn’t. Okay, I said something else to Land or didn’t. So that’s what we’re after. 

And one of the most surprising things that we found was that when the negotiators asked to talk to the person in crisis, typically, the person in crisis will resist talking and say something like, ”I don’t want to talk. What’s the point in talking? Talking doesn’t do anything.” Whereas when the proposal was couched as speaking, the person in crisis started to talk. And what’s really nice about this finding is that it’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t discover unless you looked at the recording. And it’s also the kind of thing that you wouldn’t think would make a difference because we do tend… I am a psychologist by background and we tend to reach to psychology and think, well, this person is going to jump or not, they’re going to… And simple words won’t make a difference. But actually, we’re being pushed and pulled around by language, probably without even being aware. It’s just harder to resist some things than others. And that’s the truth of it.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, that’s what I really loved about your book, the idea that, in some sense, we are language to a large extent with the way we form our narratives and the framings that we put on things affect us so much because language plays such a huge role in who we are. And I really like those points in your book, yeah. And you’re talking about the attempt to reach communication strategies that work best across the board for an entire population. That reminded me of in poker and other games, there’s the idea of game theory optimal, what’s the best solution that works best no matter what strategy other people are doing, whatever their mindsets or strategy are. I saw a similarity there too. There’s the exploitative idea in games where you exploit people based on how they behave, what their strategies are. But with conversation analysis and those negotiation and police mediation situations, you’re trying to reach communications that work best across a population no matter what the people’s specific mindset are. I just saw an overlap there, yeah,

Elizabeth: Yeah, it’s true. Yeah.

Zach Elwood: I really like the examination of comedy shows, comedy situations in your book like the analysis of the TV show Friends, some of the situations from there. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s educational and interesting to analyze comedy? 

Elizabeth: Yeah, I guess a lot of listeners have, I’m not quite sure what age these days, but I watched Friends when it first came out back in the ’90s, I suppose, and I just liked it. But what I immediately also started to see was that there were some really interesting sequences in the sketches that I could use because I was starting to teach a little bit of conversation analysis myself by then as a lecturer that would really help people understand what it was that we were doing. And usefully, Friends has a laugh track, and that’s quite important because basically if I show people a clip, I would say, ”Look, it doesn’t really matter whether you like Friends, find it funny or not because we’ve got the entire package here. We’ve got the script and we’ve got the laugh track and so we can see where the audience is laughing or not laughing.” So we could start to see things like someone would say, ”Guess what?” And rather than say, ”What?” as their go ahead, tell me this thing that’s interesting, you’d get, ”Guess what? Oh, I love to play these guessing games.” And then the audience laughs and thinking, ”Well, what are they laughing at?” And of course, we know what they’re laughing at. They’re laughing at the breach of what might be expected to happen next, and Friends is full of that. So you would get things like, do you want to come over tonight? And then someone would just do a very standard, oh, I’d really like to, but I can’t for this reason, no laugh. And then the invitation would be issued to another character, do you want to come over tonight? Oh, I’d really like to, but I don’t want to. And then the audience would laugh. So yeah, I think Friends is full of those kinds of scriptwriter’s tricks for generating humor that weren’t about set pieces or jokes in this traditional sense. They were about breaching what you might expect to happen in a conversation. And so, it was just perfect to try and get students to see that they’re already conversation analysts in a way. It’s just trying to reverse engineer what’s going on here and figure out what all of the rules, the machinery that generate social interaction actually are.

Zach Elwood: And just to clarify, that was a live audience just in case people heard laugh track and thought it was… We’re talking about a live studio audience for Friends, which is-

Elizabeth: Oh, is that right? I never knew. But in a way, it doesn’t matter because it’s either the audience is laughing live or the laugh track is inserted where you’re meant to laugh. So in a way it doesn’t really matter.

Zach Elwood: That’s true. Because a fake laugh track would be the scriptwriter’s idea of what the jokes were, right? Same idea. But I do think Friends did have a live audience for a lot of their time anyway. But you’re right, it doesn’t really matter because it’s the same idea. But yeah, it’s interesting. And as you talk about in your book, it’s pointing out that there’s all these rules and perceptions and guidelines that we have about language that we don’t really explicitly examine but the fact that we know about them is displayed or comes out with our appreciation of comedy because the violations of all those rules is just really interesting. One thing you talked about in your book that you’ve studied is the perception that many people have that men and women speak in different ways, the gender differences, and you talk about how that perception doesn’t actually have that much scientifically to back it up. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about those misperceptions and what studies actually show about that language?

Elizabeth: Yeah. It’s one of the most common questions that I get asked actually about men and women. In fact, quite often people don’t ask the question. They say, but of course women and men speak differently. My interest in this partly came out of my original PhD research where I thought I was going to write a PhD that would provide more evidence of this in a particular setting that I would be able to show that men dominate mixed gender interactions and women don’t get as much of the floor. The things that had been found in sociolinguistics and so on up until that point. Immediately what I realized about my data were that I probably could cherry pick bits of data to show something like that, but it didn’t really ring true as to what was going on in the interactions. And then I discovered conversation analysis or was pushed that way by my supervisors. I ended up writing a PhD on how gender and interaction come together but in a different way. So rather than thinking about speech styles or things like who talks most or who interrupts most, I started to look at how gender creeps into interaction, which is a phrase by conversation analysts Cuppa and Livera, and they talk about how gender creeps into talk.

I started to notice that, of course, gender does become a relevant concern for people in interaction themselves. I’ve got lots of examples of people saying things like, ”Oh, yeah, so the other day I was talking to these women and they would do a little repair as they produce their description.” One of my favorite examples of all time, actually, my favorite bit of data is a group of students. It’s three men and a woman student sitting around doing a task and one of them says, ”Oh, hang on, who’s writing down the thing that we’re doing here?” It’s a man who says that and then another man says, ”Oh, you can’t read my writing once I’ve written it.” And then the third man points at the woman and says, ”Well, secretary female.” And they have a little laugh about it, but she ends up being the person who writes down the group’s ideas and doesn’t participate verbally again. This is a moment where gender is something that is making the difference to that encounter, but it’s not really about speech styles, it’s about how it crops up and gets, people could resist it or they could challenge it or they could go along with it and it affects the participation of that entire encounter. 

So on the one hand, you can still study gender and interaction, but that’s quite a different way of approaching it and that’s what I ended up doing. But the thing that is much more compelling for people in a way is the idea that men and women talk differently. But I think you can show that and if you ask people about it, of course, if you did a survey, then people would give you all sorts of examples, they’ll probably tell you that they think it’s different. And then you would publish the paper and you would find that people talk differently because that’s how you’ve set the research up. But when you look at things without starting with gender or actually any other category, which is the way conversation analysis proceeds, if you just look at what’s going on, then… For example, I’ve got loads and loads of examples of people telephoning organizations of all kinds and making requests everything from buying windows, making an appointment at the doctor’s, trying to book a holiday. And what you find is that you can’t really see anything along gender lines in the way those requests are made. A traditional stereotype notion of this would be that women do it more politely or with more assuming an honoring or could you possibly maybe, or something like that. Or if we didn’t say it was gendered, we might say that’s a British way of doing things or we’d stick some category onto it. 

But actually, what you see is that when people phone up to make a request of something, conversation analysts have shown this over and over again, people are oriented to other sorts of things. So they’ll say I need an ambulance in a way that they don’t say I need new windows. But they might sometimes say I need new windows if yesterday they got smashed, but they might say it differently if the stake is different, if the urgency is different. And so, people will ask for things in quite different ways, but it doesn’t really fall out along gender lines. 

I could give you lots of examples and people might guess, oh, that’s definitely a woman, that’s definitely a man. They’d almost always be wrong because actually people change the design of the things they do for matters of urgency, how entitled they are to ask for it, how obliged the other person is to fulfill that request, all those kinds of things are what’s shaping how we ask for things. And then of course, this also allows us to see sometimes people ask for things in ways that seem really pushy or overly-entitled or… Because again, it’s same kind of breach. You can imagine it in a friend script that someone asks for a terribly urgent, they frame it as though they’re asking for an emergency ambulance but in fact, they just need a coffee. Do you know what I mean? And you can imagine what the laugh would be because you can see that they’ve done a far too pressing request and is fitted to your foundation.

Zach Elwood: Out of context, yeah. That’s what I really liked that about your book and conversation analysis in general just talking about the importance of the situation and how many other factors there are that we sometimes realize. And one of the examples you talked about was the word please and how that’s… Actually, I’m not sure you talked about that in your book or maybe I just heard that in an interview, but the use of the word please we tend to associate that with politeness, but in a lot of situations, it actually has an aggressive quality when you’re like, ”Can I get this thing please?” to someone who’s serving you or whatever the situation is. Long story short, so many of these situations have so many factors that dictate or govern or influence how we speak in certain ways. Yeah.

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s a great example because the please one is a classic example of how people pick on the wrong thing. I was just actually talking about this with somebody yesterday about the bit of moral panic around small children not saying please when they ask an Alexa for something. I’m just thinking they’re all looking in the wrong place because, yes, we teach children to say please and thank you probably quite rightly. I don’t have kids so I don’t have much skin in this particular game. But I think it’s more important to think about why are we teaching please and thank you. Because actually, when you look at adults making requests, and again, I’ve got in these examples hundreds of examples of people doing very tentative polite sounding requests that don’t have please in them because instead, there’s something like, ”Oh, I was just wondering, I don’t know if it’s possible. But is there any chance I could see you on Friday?” And they don’t say please. They handle that sense that we might have a politeness in a different way. It’s about how entitled are you to ask for this thing. Whereas in fact, you see things like, as you said, can I have this, please? And it actually sounds a bit over entitled, and a bit pushy. 

So the please discussion with children and Alexa is really interesting, but it’s not quite getting to the heart of the matter, which I think so much communication falls off because even the gender stuff that we talked about earlier, in some ways, so many people believe there is a gender difference that it’s quite hard to cut through that discourse anyway. And there’s a researcher who I think did become a, I don’t know if you’d call himself a consulting exactly, but Max Atkinson who wrote a book and a review years ago called Claptrap, and it was all about how politicians get applause and so on. But he also talked about the myths of communication and in particular the body language myth. And the Mehrabian communication is 93% body language myth. And he interviewed Albert Mehrabian who published that research that everyone will quote at you and stick on pie charts and things and they talked about the fact that Albert Mehrabian never claimed to really find that 93% of communication was nonverbal. And Max Atkinson goes on to say, ”Of course, this can’t really be true because we’d all manage in France, no problem, even if we didn’t speak French, and how can we talk in the dark, and why is radio so popular and podcasts if 93% of communication is nonverbal.” But also, Max Atkinson basically says that when he trains people in communication, everybody thinks that your arms folded means you’re defensive even though there’s zero evidence to really show that. So many people believe it that you have to train it anyway. This is through the looking glass with some of this communication stuff.

Zach Elwood: That perception that people think that a large percentage of communication is nonverbal, maybe you can talk a little bit about where that idea came from and what do you think it is that is so attractive about that idea that allowed to spread to so many people?

Elizabeth: I think it’s the simplicity of it. Because if you just Google nonverbal communication 93% and look at images, you’ll see that statistic parceled out into lots of pie charts and charts and loads and loads of slides. So it’s become a really compelling thing that people just say because it’s simple. And over the years because I’ve found myself wading into the communication training world to some extent, for a long time, it troubled me that I would go and do a presentation or do a bit of a workshop and I would say, ”My research shows that if you explain your service like this rather than like that, you’re going to get more clients at the end of it.” 

And at the start, people would say things like, ”It’s really interesting.” And I would think, why isn’t it useful? Because haven’t I just told you exactly what to do? But I also realized that I didn’t really look like training. I looked like an academic talking about my research findings and I needed to work quite hard to make what I was doing package seemed like a communication training package. Because actually, what people want is to know something like my learning style is one of these four learning styles or my conflict style is one of these four conflict styles or communication is 93% body language, and then people feel like they’ve learned something. And it took me quite a long time to get my head around this idea. 

And of course, one of the other problems in the communication training environment is that it’s not like being a physicist and explaining things about black holes that people don’t expect to already know something about. Black holes don’t exist for us to understand them. They’re there. We may or may not become a scientist to describe and understand them and so on. Whereas communication is something that is only there for humans to get their lives lived. And everyone’s been communicating since they were born so everybody has loads and loads of experience and all of their Anik data to tell you what they do in interaction and what they think. And that can be… It’s an interesting challenge for somebody doing a scientific approach to communication because it’s so easy for people to reach into their Anik data and tell you that it’s something else and it might feel true for them, but it’s not general for everybody else, or just not really what any research would find. 

So I think that the Albert Mehrabian work, in which he then went on in this interview with Max Atkinson to show the problems with the way, I think he actually calls them self-styled image consultants go and use this statistic. And it is just a myth. But we like things simple and we don’t want the complexity. We see it a lot now during COVID, and so on. It’s either lockdown or it’s not. Everything’s a binary and we can’t handle… It might be three things or four things, or it’s this one, but not in all situations. And somehow, we need to make complexity like that or multi-layering still is digestible for people to take away.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, there’s something there with the communication trainers or sales training or transformational seminar people that like the false statistic or false information about so much of our communication being nonverbal. I think there’s something there that they like the perception that they’re going to teach you something about how to have rapport with someone that is some mystical or magical thing that can’t really be analyzed, that they have these special skills, these nonverbal skills. And actually, I worked with a neurolinguistic programming transformational seminar coach who was in the Tony Robbins’ circle. I worked for him for six months and it was really interesting just seeing… There was a lot of that reliance on misinformation and distortions of truths and it was all aimed at, we’re going to teach you something that’s amazing and that most people don’t know. So I think there’s that quality too, yeah.

Elizabeth: Yeah. I think one of the big problems comes when you start to realize that some of these ideas, well intentioned ideas often or well-intentioned descriptions of what counts as good communication which come from people expert, people who are trying to remember to the best of their knowledge what worked in particular encounters when those kinds of things underpin guidance or particularly, when they underpin a communication assessment or when they start to underpin and get embedded in speech analytic systems and so on. Because I’ve, again over the last few years, discovered that people when they’re being assessed on their communication skills, whether they’re a salesperson or a doctor or a police officer, they’re often being assessed against criteria that no conversation analysts would have ever drawn up, that’s for sure. And then you find that you have a look at a speech analytics platform that might have some algorithms in it as well and people are being coded on their performance against criteria that they’re just built from smoke. And the problem with that is, of course, then people might be getting hired, fired, getting bonuses or not. And that’s so problematic. It’s so unethical.

Zach Elwood: It’s like the idea that looking a certain direction can tell you something about people’s level of deception or if they’re making stuff up. Yeah, it’s related to that too. 

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

Zach Elwood: You talk in your book about the idea that, and one of your big themes is we are the turns that we take, can you elaborate a little bit on what that means to you?

Elizabeth: We all the turns that we take partly came out of the idea that as I was talking about before that we tend not to think that in a crisis negotiation, for example, asking somebody whether they will talk to you versus speak to you. We don’t think that’s going to make a difference because we tend to psychologize people and ascribe motivations and intentions and all the rest of it to them without really realizing oftentimes that all we’re doing is relying on what people say, whether they resist us or go along with those or ignore us or affiliate with those or whatever it might be. And so I think when it comes to the kind of person that you are or the kind of person that other people think you are, then you start to think about how other people are almost all of the evidence that you might get. Even in things like listing traits and personality types and qualities and so on, we tend to say things like, oh, people are really rude or they’re a bit neurotic or they’re obnoxious. But we’re not making psychological assessments here or using instruments. We don’t halt an encounter to us without a psychometric test and decide what people are just like the negotiators in a crisis situation, don’t listen to the first thing that the person in crisis says and then give them a psych, give them an evaluation and then decide what to say in response. We’re basically using what people do and what people say and how people say things constantly to form part of our evidence base about what we think that person is like. 

So while who we really are may or may not reside somewhere in our bodies, for most people for most of the time, our sense of who we are and who others are comes from how they are. And of course, a lot of how people are is what they say and do and a lot of what they do is what they say. I’ve got this little thing, it’s not meant to be serious at all, but I call it the conversation analytic personality diagnostic. It’s not meant to be a serious diagnostic, but immediately people do recognize the kind of thing that I’m talking about. 

One of my categories is the miss greeter. And the miss greeter is the kind of person who if you’re at a party or a conference or something like that and you go up and say hello to somebody, and you may or may not be shaking their hands, but they’re not looking at you. They’re looking over your shoulder to who else is more interesting, attractive or important in the room. We know what that feels like that you’re talking to someone who isn’t really listening. And that’s a miss greeter. And so, when making that assessment purely on how they’re interacting with us, I suppose that maybe it’s not just, of course, about what people say, but it’s their whole embodied conduct around interaction that we’re using to decide what kind of person somebody is.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, it’s our rules for interaction which come out in our, these ingrained rules that we learned from our childhood or whatever and they come out in our conversation in various ways. Yeah, I just really liked that. It got me thinking about how much of our rules are based on our parents’ interactions, our friends’ interactions when we were growing up, and how our perceptions of other people as being faulty or mean in various ways that’s due to the rules that they somehow were passed on that that they absorb these rules of various sorts. Yeah, it just got me thinking about all these hidden rules and how that can affect how people are viewed by others and even how they view themselves if they have different sets of rules. Yeah.

Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And of course, our everyday idiom is full of things like she goes on and on and on, or you can’t get a word in edgewise. And we do talk about people and about the way they talk in a very ordinary way as well. And of course, a lot of the time what we’re doing is saying things about the kind of person that they are, your new boss is someone who actually listens to you as a contrast with the previous boss who you doesn’t actually listen. And we do tend to make a lot of our everyday assessments and decisions about people that we like or not based on the ways they interact with us even if we’re not really realizing we’re doing that.

Zach Elwood: And you talked about the other idea of the first mover and that’s someone who we all know, people who just like to say things almost to get a rise out of people or when they introduce themselves, they’ll say something first that’s outside of the bounds of normal conversation and what they think is interesting to do or even fun to do in their minds maybe that’s their role in their mind or their perception, but to other people, it’s just rude or obnoxious. Yeah. 

Elizabeth: Yeah. And actually, I do also worry that sometimes these are things that people have read in some magazine how to be interesting at a party. One of my favorite examples of that was actually giving a talk about this stuff, including talking about first movers. And there was this after, a drinks thing afterwards, and I was talking to one of the other speakers and someone came up to us and said to the other speaker, ”You didn’t seem very confident.” And she looked at me and went, ”First mover.” But that was the kind of thing where you think, yeah, that’s a classic thing. And the problem with those first mover types which is it stops us… I think maybe we don’t realize enough how much of the time we’re not really saying what we would like to say in these situations because somehow, the social interaction or machinery just actually places so many constraints on us without us really thinking about this. But to say to somebody that is very rude, somehow, you’re the person who is now the problem even though they went first as the first mover and now they are the victim of you being too challenging and they didn’t really mean it that way and they were only trying to be funny. And so, this stops us I think and it stops people being challenged on their behavior because it’s actually really hard to challenge people about what they just did because it’s very easy for somehow you to become the problem even though they went first.

Zach Elwood: Well, it’s easy to see how the misperceptions happen too because there’s the concept of the icebreaker and people can get that idea that it’s interesting and cool maybe to say something unorthodox or out of the blue to break the ice, but then a lot of people would perceive that thing as just rude or out of place. And your book talked a bit about the challenges of teaching these ideas of rapport in some sales trainings or even in the pickup artists school of thought where there’s these things that people teach that are supposed to build rapport, but can actually do the exact opposite because they’re so artificial and so contrived and not at all fitting what we would expect in normal conversation. And I really like that view because I see a lot of this in a lot of organizations or people get interested in these in these ways to build rapport. But in my mind, so much of that stuff turns off a wide percentage of people. It’s almost like a Dunning-Kruger situation where they think that they’re seeing this landscape of what the factors are, but they aren’t seeing the stuff that conversation analysis would show which is there’s all these rules that they’re violating and can easily just turn people off and make people angry.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think the rapport piece is really interesting because of course, almost all organizations that I ever encounter are interested in rapport in some way or another. And almost always in the research or when we start to look at how that manifests itself in different organizations, almost always what you see is that the things that they’re doing that are apparently relationally oriented aren’t working. And sometimes, of course, because we’re able to show what people are doing that does work, sometimes we wonder whether people are just ignoring things that they’ve been told to do. 

Some people of course, if you’re in an organization, you’ve been trained to do these particular things at the start of an encounter to build rapport and you’re not very confident, then you’re probably going to just keep doing it or maybe the boss is listening in or something like that. You get these situations I think where somebody is decided this is the way to do it. And a bunch of people do it and it doesn’t work. And then a bunch of people figure out that this doesn’t really work and do something else. And sometimes I think that’s what I’m discovering when I’m doing the research. And one of my takeaway messages in my training, which again, this is meant to just pique your interest, but there’s more to it than this. My takeaway is stop building rapport, which might sound a bit crazy. But basically, what I can show people is that people make the mistake of thinking like I need to build rapport and then have the encounter that we’re meant to be here for. So you see this front loading of building rapport and then you may or may never get to the main reason for the conversation because people have already lost interest or hung up or given up or whatever it might be. 

So instead, what I try to get people to understand is that rapport is an outcome. So if you think about what’s the best way to move through this encounter with the least friction and the swiftest, smoothest progress? At the end of that, people might feel as though they’ve got rapport. So you can’t really build it first and then do something else. You have to be really effective in whatever it is that you’re meant to be doing with this person and then at the end of it, you can see that the relationship has evolved to do something else. 

To give you a couple of examples of this, for example, we found that in business-to-business cold call sales, the salespeople that started out with small talk didn’t get as far and as quickly as the ones that cut to the chase more quickly and a bit more direct. So, this was a huge relief to some people, but they just didn’t want to do this more. And it was so awkward. It’s the idea that some professors says actually, this isn’t really working anyway. That landed quite well. Another example is, this is calls to vet practices where the vet… I think this is a nice example of where actually what matters is that you’re really listening to the person that you’re talking to. So if you call the vet to make an appointment for your new puppy’s injections or something like that and the receptionist says, “Yeah, yeah, we can do that. Oh, what’s your puppy called?” Now, if you’re the kind of person who just wants to talk about your new puppy because you’re obsessed by your new puppy, then you’ve got a captive audience here and the receptionist can go along with that and build that rapport for a new client at the firm. But actually, what we also see is that the receptionist might push that thing and keep saying, “Oh, so what’s your puppy called?” And you’ll get this, whatever, I don’t know, “Brownie.” And then, Oh, and how old is he?” And then you get this monosyllabic delayed responses from the person calling. What that receptionist isn’t doing is hearing that this is someone who just wants the answer to the question, compared to some other people who desperately do want to talk endlessly about their dog. It really is a matter of am I actually designing what I do for the person that I’m talking to? Am I really listening? And then the most important place in a way where we’ve seen the consequences of maybe getting this rapport piece wrong or right is in the crisis negotiations again. Everyone’s going to of course say, “In training or in writing, it’s really important to build a good rapport with the person in crisis.” But what we showed was things like if the person in crisis has started talking to a uniformed police officer on the street because that’s the first person who encountered them and now the negotiators have arrived, the professionals, actually the person in crisis sometimes wants to just keep talking to the person they’ve already been talking to for an hour and so taking over isn’t very good. So that’s one thing. Or you would see that expressions of care and kind of like ‘I really care about you,’ those things typically don’t work either with the person in crisis. They say things like, ”You don’t really care about me. You’re just doing your job.” And so, at the other end of the encounter, what we see is that there are really effective negotiators who don’t do that kind of I really care about you, but instead try to be action-focused and so on. By the end of the negotiation, there’s this one word, the negotiator says things like, ”Will you just come down? You’re really starting to annoy me now.” And the person in crisis is like ah, then they just laugh. And then the person in crisis says, “Oh, you can go. You don’t have to stay here.” And the negotiator says, ”Actually, I do. You know how it works. I’ve got to stay with you. So will you come down?” That actually is rapport because she could not have done that. He didn’t know by now that I can do this and actually the person is going to come down in a second anyway. And that’s what happens. So I think again, it’s just more complicated. You can’t wave a magic rapport wand and then the rest of your encounter will be smooth. You have to put some effort in all the way through. [laughs]

Zach Elwood: Right. It’s the simplistic things that bug me, of these simplistic messaging of trying to turn everyone into extroverted, small talking, cookie cutter things. That bugs me. I think there’s a lot more value in just being yourself and listening to people. Yeah. I’m interested in political polarization and I talk about that on the podcast sometimes because I see this Us versus Them animosity at least in the US as a big problem here and probably throughout the world as it seems to be growing for various reasons. But because you’ve done some work on COVID-related language and how language can impact and increase animosity, increase us versus them feelings, do you have some examples of that from COVID or other political topics that come to mind?

Elizabeth: Yeah. The last two years have served as of many, many examples of political discourse to analyze for sure in the US and in the UK as well. I think one of the interests that I have in the language of COVID, but really you could replace COVID with many other things as well, is how quickly things polarize or split into binary so it’s this or it’s that. So I think it’s probably true to say that in a lot of countries, the discourse has been it’s locked down or nothing or these kinds of you’re a vaxxer, or you’re an anti-vaxxer and there’s nothing in between. And plenty people also talk about they are shades of gray, this is a continuum or whatever. We’re back to communication is 93% nonverbal. It seems that too many people just want the simple, quick message and don’t want to think any further about complexities or shades of gray. And actually, I’ve been looking in the last few weeks or so at the living with the virus phrase as an example of this because living with the virus is really, really common. This idea that we just have to live with it has been used in quite different ways. So when you start to dig into the learning to live with COVID or live with the virus, you see that it gets used in two ways. Either people focus on the learning side of things, so they focus on what do we need to learn so that we can live with the virus alongside and physically enjoy whilst the virus is circulating? So in adaptations and behaviors and mitigations and strategies. Versus the inverted to kind of “live with it”, which tends to cash out as a topic-closing dismissal, not wanting to do anything about it. And of course, I was just literally looking at this this week and looking at mentions on one of these large databases that researchers can access to see which of those versions of the phrase is outpacing the other at the moment. And what we can see is that the “live with it, do nothing dismissal” gets more hits at the moment than the “learn” version of it, but we really need to keep focusing on what we’ve learned over the last few years. But nevertheless, even that it’s not quite as simple as that because all parties and lots of countries at different points in the pandemic have used the “learn to live with the virus” and it can mean quite different things depending on who’s using it and why and to underpin what. But I think when it gets to the point where people are parodying it, so people start to accuse each other of having a living with it approach and they put it in scare quotes. And once it gets parodied and satirized, then you can see this become meaningless as well. 

Zach Elwood: Yeah, that’s a great example. Clearly at some level, we do have to live with it and it doesn’t mean you just don’t do anything about it. You also talked a little bit about the anti-vax language which calling people anti-vax, there’s more gentle or more inclusive ways to phrase that can have concerns about the vaccine type of language versus just grouping everybody into this anti-vax label, which I agree is not helpful. I think that’s what you were saying, but maybe I-

Elizabeth: Well, I think public health communication has tried to make sure that other terms are used like vaccine hesitancy or just things that… Because in the end, what you want is you want to try and encourage people to have the vaccine. But one of the things that I’ve also found across my research when I look at some of the things that are common themes across all of it is issues around persuasion and influence and so on. This isn’t specifically about the vaccine but you can hopefully see the implications, and that is that when I look at– I’m thinking about mediation settings, crisis negotiations, some ordinary language, and then sales calls where people are resisting something a lot of the time. They’re either resisting participating in mediation, they’re resisting the negotiator, they’re resisting the sales. But at some point, you can also look at, well, they are going to take a different position at some point in this conversation so what is it that seems to be underpinning that change of mind? And the semantics here are quite important because with another colleague, we discovered that when you look at the way people use words like persuade, change your mind, in everyday language, they get used in quite different ways that are quite informative for strategies. Because what we see is that people want to talk about changing their mind rather than being persuaded. And being persuaded is… People in crisis don’t want to be persuaded by a negotiator to come down. They want to change their mind independently and decide to come down.

Zach Elwood: Right, because persuasion has an element of manipulation in some people’s minds, yeah. 

Elizabeth: Well, I think it also has a, this is not technical at all, but it I think it has a sense of not weakness if you like, but it’s a face-saving thing that I’m not changing my mind because you said so. I’m changing my mind because I have decided to do that because I’m a rational human being. And so that seems to be common in what we can see in somebody who has said no to a sales process, but then says yes, or someone who said no to mediation, but then says yes. And what we can see happening in the terms of the professional party or the service provider or whoever it is that they’re setting up the communication foundations for people to talk about themselves and make decisions themselves. Hopefully, a straightforward example of this is the difference between a negotiator saying, “How did you get up there?” versus “I’d really like you to come down.” They’re not going to say yes to I’d really like to come down, but if you say how did you get up there, people will start talking about decisions that they already made that day and that is actually part of the process of deciding to come down. So if you understand that human thing that people want to save– they’re going to change position but they want to save face– then you need to not focus on persuasion, you need to enable a change of mind.

Zach Elwood: That’s usually important, yeah. This has been very interesting, Liz. I thank you for coming on, I appreciate your time.

Elizabeth: Great, thank you.

Zach Elwood: That was Elizabeth Stokoe. You can follow her on Twitter @LizStokoe. If you’re interested in learning more about conversation analysis, I recommend her book Talk: The Science of Conversation. If you haven’t listened to it already, I think you’d like my interview with Saul Albert, where he talked about conversation analysis, both the history of the science and a bit about his work. 

If you didn’t know, I’ve done my own work analyzing speech patterns. I wrote a book called Verbal Poker Tells, which is an analysis of a wide range of speech patterns in poker and what they generally mean. Of my three poker tells books, it’s the book I’m most proud of because it was by far the most intellectually rigorous work I’ve done. If you google “verbal poker tells” you’ll find it. And I talk a little about that work in my interview with Saul Albert.   

I think Liz’s points towards the end were very important, because I see simplistic, binary-like language as playing a huge role, even the main role, in our political and cultural divides. The more people speak in simplistic ways, like “everyone is either in this group or that group,” or “everyone is either wrong or right on this topic”, the more we’ll see tensions rise, and the more we’ll see people feel the need to group themselves in one group or the other. The more people are careful with their language and aim for nuance and the recognition of complexity, the more we defuse tensions and get people on our side and are able to have productive conversations. On a previous episode, I talked about transgender topics and our angry divides on that, and my guest said something that really stuck with me, which is “The complexity of the truth is inconvenient for both sides.” And I think on a lot of topics these days this is true; our conversations are sometimes driven or at least significantly affected by people who have taken the most extreme and us vs them positions. 

But I think in order for us to solve our problems and build bridges and avoid worst-case outcomes, more of us must try to avoid simplistic us vs them framings and strive to see the nuance in situations. And even on topics where you think things are clear and nothing to argue about, it means trying to see how the people you think are wrong are also human, and seeing how the more people talk about people who disagree with them as if they’re not human or as if they’re incapable of reason, the more that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because our us vs them language is not just unpersuasive but may be the main engine that works to amplify group-based identities and rile up people’s emotional defenses and anger and such. 

I’ve done quite a few interviews related to language and how it pertains to political polarization. One that stands out was an interview with Karina Korostelina, who wrote a book about how insults and hurt feelings drive political conflicts, and of course insults are language, and social media provides a perfect tool for creating and perceiving insults. And I talked to Jaime Settle, a social researcher who studied the mechanisms of how Facebook and other social media amplify political polarization. All these things come down to how we use language and how we perceive others’ use of language. And I think if we’re going to solve our political polarization problems more people need to think about how we use language, and we need to be more judgemental and critical of people who speak in simplistic us vs them ways, even the people on our side. That’s the only way we’ll start to create a culture of taking language seriously, and I think that’s hugely important. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast. If you like it, consider giving me a rating on iTunes or Spotify or the podcast platform you listen on. I make no money on this podcast so if you want to encourage me, you can send some money on Patreon at 

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