How Conversation Works: 6 Lessons for Better Communication

Course No. 9382
Professor Anne Curzan, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
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3.7 out of 5
87 Reviews
66% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 9382
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Course Overview

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
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Anne Curzan

About Your Professor

Anne Curzan, Ph.D.
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...
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How Conversation Works: 6 Lessons for Better Communication is rated 3.7 out of 5 by 87.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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!
Date published: 2014-11-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Avoid Course is geared to teenagers without any life experiences. The analysis and practical technique to improve conversational skills is obvious to anyone with work experience. The course could have been summed with a list of bullet points. However, I would have benefited from this class if I had taken it in college.
Date published: 2014-11-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent start to the art of conversation As more and more of us are on-line, our conversational skills become more and more in-effective especially with the new generation whose primary means of communication is text or on-line. Every school aged child should take this course because there are numerous examples of how simple personal communication sets the tone for the future and ability to relate which ultimately defines success, within the right circles that is. I would have liked more information however the professor has such a pragmatic style and practical set of examples that I do highly recommend it, all of us can use help in this area for sure, especially us A-Type personalities.. LOL
Date published: 2014-10-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from How Conversation Works Glad to see shorter courses being offered. This one is a very good introduction to the subject, which is what I want in most of the courses I order. However, not having an outline is a significant drawback. Hope outlines on shorter courses are available in the future, even if abbreviated. Downloading to be printed by the student would be okay. Basic reference for study in greater depth would be appreciated, including more detailed Great Course.
Date published: 2014-10-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good course, but a little basic for me It's a good course for those who find it difficult to effectively communicate with. The structure of the course is very clear, and the presentation is great. But for me personally, this course is a little too basic since I am a very conversationally aware person.
Date published: 2014-05-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific Course This is a great primer for those interested in learning how we communicate and offers some in depth research based information as well. This is an enjoyable and productive course for personal or professional use. Strongly recommended.
Date published: 2014-05-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Intended audience...? I learned that men are from earth and women are from Mars and Venus. This course does not appeal to professionals and has overly-simple examples leaving me feel like there is no intended audience.
Date published: 2014-04-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Incredibly poor course! This course is an incredibly poor representation of what we have come to expect of The Teaching Co. There is absolutely nothing to recommend it. The instructor fails to enunciate, she flails her hands and arms like windmills, the staging is amazingly hokey and the material trite. We returned the course for credit.
Date published: 2014-02-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I loved it! For a 6 lecture course its fantastic! Yes a lot of it is common sense but it has also changed the way I pay attention to my conversations.
Date published: 2014-02-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Contents are not as good as the description The course description sounds really good. Throughout the course, there are a few good points. But in general, contents are very dry and not nearly as good as the description says. Prof could have used more case examples to show her points better.
Date published: 2014-01-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Needs more content Worthwhile, but left me somewhat disappointed. Professor Curzan provides some insightful tips, but I had hoped for more information and had expected to get more guidance about how to converse effectively in social settings. Her examples of conversation-aiding introductions and the general idea of thinking about a “conversational floor” certainly were helpful. Yet I would have appreciated more detail on conversational strategies. Like some other reviewers, I think a longer course by the same professor would be more valuable.
Date published: 2013-12-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Systematic ideas on communication This course takes a systematic approach to the everyday process of communication. The ideas of excellent communication are intuitive, but when put together In a linguistics course, provoke a greater understanding of communication skills and methods for the course listener. This is a very useful course for any person seeking to improve their communication skills as well as gaining an understanding of the person with whom one is communicating.
Date published: 2013-12-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Obvious but sometimes helpful topics Professor Curzan did a great job discussing the topic with the amount of lectures that she gave on this DVD. Although most of the information given was obvious, it was still interesting to learn the "hows" and "whys" of its occurrences. Still, some information I had never heard before and found interesting.
Date published: 2013-12-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Prof Curzan gets an Incomplete This short course just didn't work of me. It may have worked at twice the length. The course listing states several outcomes that were not covered in any meaningful way. Had the course been 12 sessions I'm sure Prof Curzan could have done a good job. I sense she was limited by the format.
Date published: 2013-11-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well Worth Your Time This is a great overview of a vital social skill that all professionals must have in their tool box. The two concepts of the conversational floor and minimizing face threatening acts will completely change the value you get out of daily interactions with those around you.
Date published: 2013-11-03
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Too Little -Too Much Unlike other reviewers , I found the sound quality excellent in the digital audio version, The presentation skills of the lecturer were superb, full of energy and enthusiasm . But I had hoped to acquire better face to face conversation skills which she addresses in one of six modules. Email and texting ,addressed in another module, were not the conversation skills I wanted nor how to do job interviews , presentations or classroom teaching. There were a lot of topics covered with little substance to each. This was my fourth of the Great Courses and the only one I found disappointing
Date published: 2013-10-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Poor Audio Good lectures, but poor audio quality. I'm not an audio engineer, but I know what sounds bad. It sounded like the audio might have been over-modulated and clipping resulted. It was harsh to the ear, and painful to listen to. The first two lectures were especially bad. It is unfortunate because this lecturer was, otherwise, interesting and easy to understand.
Date published: 2013-09-30
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not Recommended This course was a real disappointment. Although I had hoped for a useful course on this topic, this was not the one. The main messages seemed fairly obvious, and I didn't find them to be particularly helpful from a practical standpoint. The professor also had a highly opinionated manner I did not find appealing. Her discussion of the research on the subject often seemed forced and pretentious. Finally, the course presentation at times seemed cheesy, such as when actors were used to demonstrate a conversation.
Date published: 2013-08-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Useful Course This course made me more aware of conversational styles as I interact with people in my daily activities. The results have been beneficial. The lectures are presented well, interesting, and easy to follow. Role playing examples are effective for illustrating and clarifying important points.
Date published: 2013-06-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Easy starter course If you are new to teaching company, this might be a good place to start. The CD version has 3 discs, and no course guidebook as far as I can tell. The teacher covers topics which most people are familiar with, such as male-female communication differences. The useful or interesting parts cover communication in the workplace and in social situations such as first dates. She does refer to research studies, bringing much needed scientific evidence to the proceedings.
Date published: 2013-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Useful The course title explains exactly what this series of lectures is, to expect more than this (as I've read in many previous reviews) is simply not taking note of the title and course description. The lectures are 6 lessons to improve communication and that's exactly what they do. Far from being obvious or common sense, they contain useful information for us all, or at least all the people I come into contact with. Many of the teenagers and young adults, I come into contact with, would benefit in studying these simple lectures. If "butting in" on someone else's talk is common sense, then why so so many people do this? If the idea that people are not engaged by power points of endless lists, then why do even more people do this??? Prof Curzan presents extremely well. She talks clearly and concisely and kept my interest throughout. I would recommend this course as a starter, then if more detail and further analysis is required, I would recommend Communication Skills by Prof Kehoe and then Negotiation Skills by Prof Dues.
Date published: 2013-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Six Lessons Worth Taking To let you know what value I put on this course, I purchased three copies and gave one to each of my three young adult children. The lectures contain pointers, examples, and lessons that will be of real practical value. I think the three hour length is also a benefit and won't scare people away with the 12 or 18 hour commitment that most TC courses require. If they want to delve deeper, Professor Curzan offers many resources to consult.
Date published: 2013-05-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Ennunciation matters [Audio] I liked this course and found it helpful and thought provoking. I do agree with another reviewer that Prof. Curzan could work on her enunciation. It took repeated listening for me to correctly process "speech eks" as "speech acts". A linguist by training, she explained how unnatural written words can sound in a spoken context, but then at times seemed to demonstrate this without any awareness. I did connect with her underlying compassion, and would like to see her material expanded into a longer course.
Date published: 2013-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent course for shy people Although I am a senior citizen with several management training and basic communications courses under my belt, I still felt awkward striking up a conversation in social situations with folks I do not know. This course has helped me overcome my hurdles. For me, the lectures on conversational awareness and report talk versus rapport talk gave me insights that I had been missing. I realize that I probably should have learned these conversational skills in kindergarden, but I did not. Over my lifetime, I have met many others who did not as well. The course is exactly as advertised: a short course to present the basic concepts to enable happy and successful conversations in family, social, and work situations. It is applicable for students of all ages, although high school and college age students would benefit the most. If you find yourself in or aspire to leadership positions, you would benefit from a thorough awareness of the practices presented in this course. If you find yourself in a management role you will need more advanced courses in effective communication skills such as in the course offered by Prof. Dalton Kehoe. Mastery of the principles in this course will help make Prof. Kehoe's course more meaningful.
Date published: 2013-03-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from a bit superficial but still worth watching an excellent and pleasant professor, although i sometimes felt like watching somebody using sign language (way too much hand gesturing for my taste). she does offer some very useful tips but as a whole the course remains superficial. might be due to the short format - why just 6 lectures on this important topic?
Date published: 2013-03-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from An important topic [Video] but course would work very well in audio, a more portable media. Skits provided the only non-verbal clues but were so simplistic that video wasn't necessary. PROS: In my retirement, I have the privilege to work with disadvantaged youth. I had hoped to gain insight on how to gently dissemble many of the defensive arguments used by such children. Starting off by framing speech as a "conversation floor", Curzon provides useful concepts like discourse markers, fillers, closing problems, speech acts, indirect requests, topic abandonment strategies, "face" etc. Such concepts help me understand how to get kids from blame placing behavior, "fairness" whining, or denial to the goal of productive social discourse. Her discussion of the mechanics of an appropriate apology was especially useful. CONS: The professor is self-ingratiating, repeatedly telling us about episodes where her colleagues bring problems only she, apparently, can resolve. Lecture 1: Astounding to me as a physician and father of 5 was the aside: "everyone knows" there are no differences at birth between the sexes, children are born as a "blank slate". This twist on the tired 17th century John Locke argument [known as tabula rasa] is invoked to make an argument that she herself contradicts in her gender statistics in later lectures. Lecture 2: In a course on "better communication", it seemed odd to include swearing as an example of good communication skills. Lecture 4: The bio states Curzon "interests include the history of English, language and gender, corpus linguistics, historical sociolinguistics, pedagogy, and lexicography." This course does not reflect such a broad education. Everything is presented on a 6th grade level except for a bit of jargon. For example, in discussing apologies, there are no ideas from great thinkers. Rather, we get Bill Clinton contrasted with a hot-button topic apology. This may be politically correct stuff, but is really small potatoes compared to what her bio implies she is capable of. Lecture 5: After admitting intimidation at the physician's office where she is not running the show, Curzon aims most of this lecture at patient-physician communications. The suggestion is made that in the physician's office "some" politeness be dispensed with is appalling. The last place on earth to have an impolite confrontation is a physician's office. In reality, polite patients get the extra mile of more time and "love". Impolite patients get more tests, arms length conversation, and other forms of defensive medicine. Any physician who pushes her own agenda [as did the actor physician in the skit] is a reason to change physicians, not a reason to be impolite. Curzon is really out of her league here. Summary: The course is worth a listen as an intro course but is not university level material.
Date published: 2013-03-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Conversational etiquette by another name Video download. Dr Curzan's HOW CONVERSATION WORKS deals with a very important topic: how can we be more effective verbal communicators? This not only involves transmitting information, but doing so in a way that causes as few social ripples as possible. Smooth yet clear, diplomatic yet unambiguous; that's the thing. Overall, she does an excellent job of it within the very limited space afforded to her. She speaks clearly. Her lessons are well-organized. She also exudes warmth and enthusiasm. ___________________ But here is the problem. What this course offers in reality is advice on conversational etiquette. But etiquette is not a science. Nor is there an objective way to decide who is an expert on this topic, and who is merely opinionated. A scientific gloss must therefore be provided. It could have been psychology, sociology... or linguistics. The price you pay for the appearance of objectivity is that each speciality carries with it a hefty dose of academic jargon and references to this or that study. If Dr Curzan had 12 lessons, that would not be a problem. But with 6, too much space is wasted explaining terminology as opposed to providing advice. Lesson 3 "How and When to Be Direct and Indirect" is a particularly egregious example. In it, she introduces three concepts — locutionary force, illocutionary force and perlocutionary force — to make some basic points about saying one thing and meaning another. I'm sure that in the context of a book on linguistics these concepts are very useful. But as part of a 30-minute course (one of only 6), this is like filling a tiny apartment with oversized, impressive furniture. You can't get from points A to B without tripping over yourself! That being said, this short course is cheap enough to make it worthwhile. My only advice to the Teaching Company is that if they allow an excess of jargon in 6-course lessons, they should make an effort to also provide the equivalent of a guidebook. It might be too thin to print, but something downloadable would be fine. As it is, this course is so jargon-heavy that you have to sit pencil-in-hand to retain what is said. Skip the note-taking, and you will probably remember less than 10% a week later. OK as long as the price remains low.
Date published: 2013-02-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Where is the Beef? This is a well presented course. Unfortuanately, it rarely gets beyond the obvious.
Date published: 2013-02-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Common Sense with Linguistic Labels [Audio]. I think this course would be excellent for a 20 - 25 year old, although as the professor says, the focus on the subtleties and potential mis-steps of comunication would likely make a person in that age group extremely paranoid! As a listerner in his 40s, I found a lot of the material to be pretty much what I've gained with experience, and at this stage of my life, common sense. So while the material wasn't revelatory, it was interesting to have the many aspects of conversation categorized, presented thematically by lecture, and to learn the linguistic term du jour for the subject under discussion (e.g. "conversational floor", "speech act", etc).
Date published: 2013-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Become Communication James Bond 007 in 3 Hrs Wow- This course has embedded prominent and loyal communication strategies that are creating valuable and meaning full chemical reactions in my life. Professor Ann’s insight and valuable concepts are a must to become a successful Communication James bond 007. Her advice are adequate replacement for every ones communication bugs and will increase every ones caliber to navigate ineffective relations. A masterpiece course. I was hooked from the very first lecture. An informative, concise course for teens to c-suit CEO’s. Enchanting, life changing treatise on interpersonal relationships for every situation. Professor Ann’s has clearly proved why she is one of the best professors in the world- not only in English language but also in other walks of life like psychology, science and other related discipline. Dr. Ann is a myth buster + a veteran muckraker- sharp, provocative & very useful Insight. Super thanks to Professor Ann and The Great Courses for hitting a home run again. This course should always be identified, cultivated, nurtured, and multiplied in every house in the world Here's to an inspired 2013! Sincerely, Adil
Date published: 2013-01-31
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