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How Conversation Works: 6 Lessons for Better Communication

How Conversation Works: 6 Lessons for Better Communication

Professor Anne Curzan Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Course No.  9382
Course No.  9382
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Course Overview

About This Course

6 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

How do you make conversation with someone you have just met? When is communicating by email ill-advised? How do you say “no” without using that dreaded word? Regardless of age or occupation, conversation can be tricky. And like it or not, it’s one of the most important things you do on a daily basis. Successful conversations help you advance professionally and make, maintain, and deepen relationships. Moreover, research shows that talking, when done on a substantive level, is correlated with a feeling of happiness and general well-being.

Being a great conversationalist requires practice and effort. The good news is it’s a skill set anyone can acquire and refine. In just six lectures,

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How do you make conversation with someone you have just met? When is communicating by email ill-advised? How do you say “no” without using that dreaded word? Regardless of age or occupation, conversation can be tricky. And like it or not, it’s one of the most important things you do on a daily basis. Successful conversations help you advance professionally and make, maintain, and deepen relationships. Moreover, research shows that talking, when done on a substantive level, is correlated with a feeling of happiness and general well-being.

Being a great conversationalist requires practice and effort. The good news is it’s a skill set anyone can acquire and refine. In just six lectures, How Conversation Works: 6 Lessons for Better Communication will teach you key strategies that can dramatically improve your ability to converse with anyone, from strangers to supervisors. Delivered by award-winning English professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, this highly practical course focuses on the fundamental principles you need to know to become more conversationally aware and savvy at home, in the workplace, and beyond.

You’ll be amazed by how much you can learn by stepping back from conversations and examining how they operate. You’ll notice things you never picked up on before—like what kind of speaker you are, the strategies you typically rely on (often without realizing it), and the subtleties of the strategies others may use when speaking with you. You’ll find yourself putting these lessons into practice to create more effective dialogues from the very first lecture.

Choose Your Words Wisely

An expression like “shooting the breeze” makes conversation sound easy and free-flowing, but even low-stakes conversations have an underlying systematic structure that propels them along. This course examines that framework while showing you how the effective selection of words can help you forge connections and accomplish your objectives.

Professor Curzan walks you through techniques for negotiating a variety of difficult situations, from proffering successful apologies to engaging in “face-threatening acts”—those uncomfortable moments that have the potential to do damage if your words aren’t chosen carefully.

You’ll learn graceful ways of   

  • pointing out a mistake;
  • asking someone to do something he or she doesn’t want to do;
  • preparing a person for “no”;
  • asking for a big favor; and
  • providing information the recipient doesn’t want to hear.

Conversations can only deepen connections when you pull your weight. In How Conversation Works, you’ll learn this involves knowing how to skillfully open and close an exchange, take turns speaking or “negotiate the conversational floor,” and send people subtle signals.

Perhaps most important is sharing the burden to make discussions feel more mutual and enjoyable. These lectures arm you with numerous conversation-facilitating devices such as

  • asking your fair share of questions and follow-up questions, which requires active listening;
  • providing informative (but not overly informative!) answers to other people’s questions;
  • introducing new topics for discussion and picking up on the topics of others; and
  • telling good stories and helping good stories along.

Talk Your Way to Success

Whether you want to build rapport with colleagues, promote your accomplishments in an interview, give a winning presentation, ingratiate yourself with your boss, or even create a connection on a first date, knowing what to say and how to say it allows for more productive, smoother interactions. How Conversation Works helps you get ahead by outlining simple techniques for accomplishing all of this and more.

Short vignettes featuring professional actors demonstrate what to do—and what not to do—in a variety of everyday scenarios such as striking up a conversation at a party. In video formats, green-screen technology places the professor in a range of environments as she provides concrete advice for taking an uncomfortable conversation in a new direction, making polite requests, mastering the “humble brag,” limiting your “talk time,” and monitoring your use of distracting discourse markers such as “um” and “you know.”

In addition to sharing these out-the-door tips and techniques, Professor Curzan dispels common myths about conversation and presents enlightening research on

  • how the conversational styles of men and women share much in common, despite differences in socialization;
  • how you may be perceived for using direct speech or sentence fillers;
  • how language-style matching quickly creates a sense of compatibility;
  • how parents serve as conversational role models; and
  • how e-communication has surprisingly systematic conventions.

A Guide for the Real World

As a professor of English and linguistics and member of the American Dialect Society, Professor Curzan offers a refreshing yet scholarly take on the subject of conversation. Using a developmental and skills-based approach that gets right to the heart of the matter, her course provides tangible, actionable methods that can be worked into your conversational repertoire immediately. 

At first, the newfound awareness you’ll acquire from How Conversation Works may cause you to become self-conscious when you speak, but the act of “conversational noticing” will soon become second nature. Before long, you’ll realize you have the tools to make yourself clearly understood, put others at ease, rescue a conversation that’s gone wrong—and keep conversations from going off course in the first place.

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6 Lectures
  • 1
    How to Become Conversationally Aware
    Discover why the simple act of talking is so important to your success professionally and personally as the professor introduces you to the idea of becoming conversationally aware. Learn and analyze techniques for doing your share of conversational work and consider how gender affects the way we converse. x
  • 2
    How the Conversational Floor Works
    Improve your ability to navigate the conversational floor by exploring turn-taking devices as well as techniques for opening conversations and monitoring or reducing your “talk time.” Weigh the pros and cons of using discourse markers and fillers such as “well,” “um,” and “like,” and understand why being an active listener and back-channeling are crucial to being a good conversationalist. x
  • 3
    How and When to Be Direct and Indirect
    Interpreting the meaning behind the words that people say is key to making conversations work well. Consider the logic of conversation and understand more consciously the way we use explicit and implicit meanings—direct and indirect speech—to accomplish things through conversation. Also learn ways to redirect conversations that feel inappropriate or questions you find overly personal. x
  • 4
    How to Navigate Face-Threatening Acts
    Situations that threaten another’s “face” or dignity are particularly complicated. Explore methods for managing this difficult social territory, including guidance on enhancing positive face, respecting personal space, offering a successful apology, and navigating the politics of giving a compliment. Consider how cultural differences of politeness affect expectations in this area. x
  • 5
    How to Negotiate Professional Relationships
    Turn to hierarchical relationships and self-promotion in the workplace with an investigation of the language of sophisticated ingratiation. Get strategies for making presentations feel more like conversations, ensuring listeners are engaged, and interviewing effectively—on both sides of the desk. Then, delve into the dynamics of doctor-patient communication, where effective conversation can lead to better care. x
  • 6
    How to Maintain Relationships with Talk
    Compare “report talk” with “rapport talk” to understand how discourse can simply relay information or build intimacy with a friend or romantic partner. Look at the fascinating research on how cooperative and competitive speaking styles differ, how parents model conversation for children from infancy, how language alignment can predict relationship success, and how electronic communications follow prescribed patterns. x

Lecture Titles

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Anne Curzan
Ph.D. Anne Curzan
University of Michigan
Dr. Anne Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Professor Curzan has won several awards for teaching, including the University of Michigan's Henry Russel Award, the Faculty Recognition Award, and the John Dewey Award. Her research interests include the history of English, language and gender, corpus linguistics, historical sociolinguistics, pedagogy, and lexicography. In addition to writing numerous articles, reviews, and edited volumes, Professor Curzan is the author of Gender Shifts in the History of English and the coauthor of How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction and First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student's Guide to Teaching. Beyond her teaching and research interests, she is a member of the American Dialect Society and sits on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary. She can also be found talking about language in her column, Talking About Words, in Michigan Today and on the segment, That's What They Say, on Michigan Radio.
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Reviews

Rated 3.6 out of 5 by 44 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 Valuble Info Since i talk to 15 to 40 people per day, I got this course with the expectation that it would be useful information. I was not disappointed, and thought it was so worthwhile that I lent the course to my son. I thought that the 'role playing by actors' illustrated the conversational cues very well, and Prof Curzan was easy to follow. She presented information in a logical sequence, and used her expertise in linguistics to illustrate the subject. I intend to listen again during my commute, and I expect that the second time will be even better than the first. I would look forward to a second volume, with additional information if that is to be planned. Thank you Prof Curzan. November 23, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Really enjoyed this course One of my favorite courses. I've already implemented several concepts learned from this course in to my daily communications at both home and work. Only wish that it was longer in order to cover the material in more depth. Professor Curzan was engaging as a speaker and the material was well organized. There were also many examples of actual conversations used to help clarify the concepts being discussed. November 16, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Somewhat Useful; Too General I was disappointed with the content of this course and perhaps it was due to the condensed format (only six sessions). The instructor was engaging and knowledgable but she tried to cover too many subjects/situations. As a result, the analysis was overly broad and general. As other reviewers have noted, most of the suggestions were obvious to anyone who is an a workplace situation or a long term relationship. I would have liked to hear more in depth on fewer subjects/situations. In additions, many of the suggestions came across as manipulative and artificial rather than establishing a genuine relationship or meeting of the minds. If you are looking for help navigating a cocktail party or maintaining a conversation while seated next to a stranger at a dinner or wedding, this course is of limited assistance. November 13, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent communication course Engaging professor, to the point, with just the right amount of examples. The content is essential for those just entering professional situations - or anyone who could improve their communication skills. I would like to see more courses from this professor, including a social communication course. Thank you! November 11, 2014
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