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
86 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 86.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful and Useful How I wish I had known the information in this course about 45 years ago! While viewing these lively presentations from a most able presenter, I rather glumly realized that I had made just about every error in mis-communication of which Professor Curzan speaks. Missed cues? Sending -- and receiving -- the "wrong" message? Awkwardly stepping on others conversations? Yes, yes, and, gulp, yes. I particularly appreciated her discussion of the useful purposes of "small talk," about which I have been wary and clumsy most of my life. Turns out that this is because I have been equally clueless about how to send and receive messages imbedded in small talk which could have led to genuine conversations or, at the least, to becoming better acquainted with persons who had been strangers when I arrived. I am tempted to suggest that all persons entering professions which tie successful conversation to accomplishment of mission (and this includes just about every one I can think of) should take this course. This is especially true for those who desire positions of authority over others, as gracious managing is truly a learned art, and for which welcoming, pressure-relieving conversational skills are a must. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2013-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brava ! This is a splendid little course. As I, you will learn a lot, much of which you knew but never realized or understood. Over a year ago, the Great Courses built a magnificent world-class set to stage their lectures. Sadly, they apparently ran out of inspiration for their secondary set, which is used to host their short courses. The schlocky furnishings are unbecoming to the Company and their wonderful Professors. Buy the course -- you'll enjoy it and gain insight into the nuance of everyday conversation.
Date published: 2012-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I wanted this conversation to continue (CD review) While this course consisted of only 6 lectures (about 3 hours total) it contained a tremendous amount of excellent information. Professor Curzan combines practical suggestions with academic research to create a thoughtful, fascinating and useful course that could benefit almost everyone. My degree is in communication, a field more general than linguistics, yet it included the study of interpersonal communication. This course had me thinking about conversation in ways I never had before. I recently listened to and review "The Art of Conflict Management" by professor Michael Dues and gave his course a lower rating due to what I found to be distracting overly casual use of language. While professor Curzan does some similar things in this course (e.g. wanna, hafta, etc.) I found it perfectly acceptable here. I think the topic here better lends itself to more casual speech, and other than this, the presentation is strong, clear, and nearly flawless, as I would hope to get from anyone particularly in this field. I purchased her other course "The Secret Life of Words" and eagerly look forward to listening to that based on her excellent job in this course.
Date published: 2012-12-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Nice overview This course essentially functions as the "working manual" for Dalton Kehoe's more elaborate and theoretical "Effective Communication Skills" (which I strongly recommend). If you want to truely understand communication then start with Kehoe's course and then take this course. If you just want some pointers on face-threatening conversations or how to be a more active conversationalist on a date, then this is an appropraite stand-alone course. The professor is very well-informed, easy to listen to and easy to follow. The lectures flow well and are well-structured. I gave the course 4 stars for the following reasons. Much of the first three lectures, though important, seem to be plain common sense and could have been condensed into two lectures. This would have opened up one lecture on non-verbal communication which I though was a serious omission. The last three lectures were simply fantastic and easily justify taking the course. I do recommend this course, but beware that it is superficial and does lack many aspects covered in Kehoe's course.
Date published: 2012-11-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Too short This was a good 3 hour course, and I found it helpful, but I wasn't nearly as entranced with the content as the professor said that some of her students were. She's a good speaker, but I felt like there were a bunch of smaller subtopics kind of thrown together randomly. Plus, I didn't leave with a feeling that I would remember much of the course except for a few words to use and not use in conversations. I would recommend this for someone like me that doesn't like conversation but only if it goes on sale. i should feel like I am going to remember something from the experience..
Date published: 2012-11-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Short, Lite, and Bittersweet [Audio Version] I was somewhat disappointed with ‘How Conversation Works.’ My overall impression is that much of the material is plain old common sense dressed up in fancy lingo like ‘positive face,’ ‘speech acts,’ and ‘cooperative vs. competitive floors.’ When Professor Curzan discusses texting, she tells us that texting lacks context, tone, and visual cues and that face to face conversation is much richer and offers more cues. Well, gosh, I’m sorry, but I already knew that! However, the course is well-organized and very easy to follow. Curzan is a lively and friendly speaker. Each lecture has a clever hook to keep the listener engaged. I was always comfortable in knowing precisely where the professor was taking me. Problem is, far too often, I’ve already been there, done that. And have the tee shirt. As I listened, I could not resist comparing Curzan’s course to Kehoe’s TTC 24-lecture powerhouse course entitled ‘Effective Communication Skills.’ Kehoe offers profound range and depth; Curzan gives us a narrow, more simplistic Cliff-Notes version of communication with a greater emphasis on linguistics. Bottom line: Kehoe’s course gives more bang for your buck. I have now taken several of the new TTC mini-courses. For me, the lack of a guide book to check references and pursue additional resources is troublesome. With some hesitation, I can still recommend ‘Conversation.’ It is a quick and lively three hours. However, I’m afraid that even with a second listening, the content is just not at the level I have come to expect from the Great Courses.
Date published: 2012-11-18
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