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Talk: The Science of Conversation

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Talk: The Science of Conversation by Elizabeth Stokoe

A Book Review written by Michael Cork, Mediator

I purchased this book to read and review after I attended a training event provided by the author. Elizabeth was the sole presenter on a day that had been organised and convened by Family Matters Inc and was a mediation skills event with a view to dealing with family conflict.

The presentation was interesting and thought provoking as far as mediation goes, as the audience were taught about the words that should not be used in a hostage taking situation, or a possible suicide incident by police negotiators. For instance, what should you say to a female who has put a noose around her neck and is standing on a chair in a room that you can’t get into? One of the suggestions was that you don’t ask to ‘talk’ to her, but tell her that you would like to ‘speak’ to her. Yes, this is a little abstract and sounds weird, but very clever nonetheless.

So, when the authors’ book was reviewed in The Observer recently, it seemed like a good idea to read it and see what advice it might offer to mediators and anyone dealing with a family breakdown.

What I learned for my role as a Family Law Group Mediator is encapsulated in the following tips:

When asking if a client wants to come to mediation and work with their potentially angry, despairing and lying ex, then the best way to pose this question for a positive response might be as follows:

“Would you be willing to try something like this?” Apparently, this is more likely to elicit a positive response then, “would you be interested or would you like to come to mediation?” I have tried this a few times now and it seems to work, but I have not compared it with less effective questioning techniques and maybe those clients I have tried this on were already committed to mediation before I had even asked.

In a legal context, precise words do matter and although it is very subtle, changing one word can make a powerful difference. Thus in the suicide scenario above, asking if you can ‘speak’ to the person who is about to kill themselves is better than saying ‘can we talk?’ Generally, this is because the person in crisis has had enough of ‘talking’ to people and it has got her nowhere in solving her problems.

Another tip to consider is the difference between the words ‘something’ and ‘anything’. At the end of a dialogue you might ask, “Is there anything else?” Or, “Is there something else you would like to tell me about?”

Which one of these similar questions at the end of a mediation session is likely to elicit more from the client? It is the latter question as the first questions is more like a closure statement from a professional that is busy and wants to move on to the next meeting. It comes across as if the professional does not want you to say anymore because they are busy and need to get on.  This is probably very common when you have presented your illness description to your doctor. However, if you were to ask the latter question, you leave the door open to the client to respond that, “yes, there was something else I wanted to ask.”

The regular use of names in conversation is a useful tip to draw the client back into the interaction if they have become distracted or appear to be withdrawing. “Let me advise you, Jenny, about the problem that has been presented to me.”

Look out for a silence or pause in the usual conversation turns between clients, as this can be indicative of a problem. So if you say, “hello, how are you”, and the response is not immediate, this can provide you with an indication that there is a problem.

The words that you use to frame a problem is powerful in terms of affecting the outcome. It influences the way you think about it and the other person’s thought process. Encouraging clients to make a decision, which on the face of it may look like not being in their initial interest, can be achieved by using the right words. Asking customers at an art gallery, Stokoe suggests, if they wish to gift aid their ticket is more likely to be successful than saying, “would you like to gift aid that today or just pay the standard?” 

Overall, I feel that this analysis of conversations is useful in mediation work and maybe in everyday life too. Talk: The Science of Conversation is an easy read and not at all scientific. It is however, strangely repetitive in places given its general message about being careful with words and giving people spaces for their ‘turns’ in conversation. It is well worth the read.

Michael Cork, Mediator