24 Mar 2019

Elizabeth Stokoe: understanding the psychology of talk

From Sunday Morning, 10:40 am on 24 March 2019

Elizabeth Stokoe is a professor of social interaction who analysed thousands of real-life conversations for her new book Talk.

She talks to Jim Mora about the most effective words to use when you want to mediate, negotiate or find out whether someone's single.

Elizabeth Stokoe

Elizabeth Stokoe Photo: Supplied

How to ask someone about their relationship status

"Some people will disclose their relationship histories by saying something like 'I'm divorced' and others won't talk about their relationship history unless asked.

According to Stokoe, the worst way to ask is bluntly, i.e. 'So what's your relationship history, then?'

"Basically, [the person will hear] 'Have you managed to attract and keep a partner in the past or not?"

A much more subtle way to get the information, she says, is to embed your query amongst other questions and employ some trail-off 'or's:

"And married then or…? "Are you divorced, then, or…?"

"If you're trying to ask a delicate question… one of the advantages of that is to not to seem to have too much hanging on the answer or be pushing for a particular answer."

How to get someone to mediate

If someone has articulated previously that they are resistant to mediation, it's best to ask if they are now "willing" to mediate, rather than if they are "interested" in mediating, Stokoe says.

"Most people encountering mediation are kind of resistant to it because they worry that mediation is impartial and they know they're the nice one and the other person is the horrible one."

The word 'willing' only works in situations where people have a pre-existing relationship, though

Negotiation: what works?

When a crisis negotiator asks someone to 'talk' to them, it gives the other person an opportunity to resist and articulate how fruitless talking is, Stokoe says.

The word 'speak' doesn't allow for as much resistance, she says.

"[A professional negotiator] understands that a person in crisis is unlikely to agree to [come down from a ledge, for example] because a negotiator asks them to.

"The key to successful negotiations we have observed is partly getting the person in crisis to be able to talk about deciding to come down."

Questions such as 'How did you get up there?' lay the foundation for a person who feels cornered to talk about coming down, she says.

Yet this kind of rapport-building doesn't work in all conversational encounters – something telemarketers aren't always wise to.

"While it might be obvious for us, at a distance that salespeople [are better off not saying] 'How are you today?' and doing small talk, a lot of them do it nevertheless ... That isn't going to get you much further in the encounter."

Some salespeople make the mistake of carrying on with small talk even if the person doesn't ask them back.

"They're not really hearing 'This person doesn't want to have this kind of conversation', she says.

Yet when we're not on the phone, isn't communication '90 percent body language' anyway? In a word, no, Stokoe says.

"I've sat in plenty of talks where people have stuck up the 'body language' statistic and people don't realise… the author of the study that comes from… he has participated in campaigns to stop people using that finding because it's been misinterpreted."

Watch a video about Stokoe 's Conversation Analytic Role-play Method (aka CARM):