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
89 Reviews
67% 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 90.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing Course I bought this course several months ago and have utilized many of the suggestions found in the course with much success. Conversation has become much more enjoyable and informative.
Date published: 2019-06-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Geeky This course is like a scholarly analysis of what make a joke funny or a scholarly analysis of how to swim. It is interesting in and of itself but it is impossible to use it to make yourself better at it. This is a short (six lectures) scholarly analysis of what makes more effective conversation. Important topics include back-channeling, saving face, and different conversation styles of men and women. The assumption is that understanding these elements can make the speaker (and listener) more effective. However, at most it can make the speaker more self-conscious. The problem is that consciously employing these lessons slows and disrupts the conversation. On the other hand, it may help a person become a better listener. Dr. Curzan communicates in a professional style. It is not personal, particularly engaging, or warm-and-fuzzy. I used the audio version. I believe the video version would not have provided any benefit.
Date published: 2018-12-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Stuff I'm 80 and I've been studying this kind of stuff all my life, I believe I could have given this course except for the last section on using social networking. So I got something out of it and anything I learn that is new is good.
Date published: 2018-07-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but a bit over-directed Good content, but over-produced staging becomes tiresome and distracting.
Date published: 2018-07-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Common Sense Got through the first two lectures. Some how it just sounds like fancy academic words being put to common sense. This lecture would be better titled "conversation tips for the immature teenager".
Date published: 2018-04-18
Date published: 2018-02-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Talking with hands General content OK, but constant gesticulation is distracting and irritating. Could professor have conversation with hands tied?
Date published: 2017-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from appropriate Makes it easy to be natural and more authentic.where listening fits in.
Date published: 2017-06-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Helpful Course A great, helpful course. I took this right after the course on influence, so it goes along nicely with that. Excellent information and great insight. Love the professor, too! I recommend this if you want to learn how to communicate better, and don't mind noticing how others communicate.
Date published: 2017-06-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Hard to say I Learned Much The professor sounded very pleasant and you could tell she has passion for this topic but I just found the content too basic and did not feel I walked away with much. The insights on communication and awareness just seemed common sense to me.
Date published: 2017-02-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Nothing incredible but still a good course Overall I found the course enjoyable to listen to (I only had the audio course) and interesting to listen to. I think the instructor does a good job balancing the theoretical talk with the practical as well. I did not give it 5 stars mainly because I didn't find the information really new. More than anything, it validated some of the thoughts I already had regarding how conversation works. Bottom line: for the price, I think this was a good course.
Date published: 2017-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent-Pithy Engaging presentation, structured, clear, well supported, and very interesting. This course could have been much longer, it ended too quickly. There were many useful insights which I will carry forward into daily corporate life. It was to my advantage to have not been influenced by the negative reviews. This material was definitely worth the time and money.
Date published: 2016-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good insights This was the very first "Great Course" I ever bought. It was an excellent introduction to the Great Courses because it was manageable to get through while at the same time filled with interesting content. I have since purchased and watched many other great courses and this one still holds up as a great starting point. I purchased the audio version and have listened to it through twice while driving back and forth to work. Though the content may appear on the surface to be simplistic, it is actually far more complex than one might think. Professor Curzan is easy to follow and uses clear examples. She has a strong command of the communications literature and does a great job with the course.
Date published: 2016-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from wish more people would see this presentation The world would be a lot better place if people would take to heart the conversation lessons from this presentation. The professor does a great job with real world conversation examples. Thank you for this course.
Date published: 2016-08-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Focus on What You Say I should begin by stating I was quite surprised to not find a guidebook for this course, otherwise I would have rated it at four stars. The content is good and complex enough to warrant an outline. The presenter is affable and an obviously talented speaker. On the downside, I found the editing for this course poor as backgrounds and tone change frequently enough to throw one's concentration off. I would not recommend paying $95 for this three hour course but definitely worth under $20 since, as with many of The Great Courses, it gets you to pause, think and hear the professor in your head before speaking.
Date published: 2016-07-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from How Conversation Works: 6 Lessons for Better Commu Say please and thank you. Make apologies sincere. Soften demands. Hold up you end of conversation. Anyone who reads this has just got the major points of the course for free. Found no value in the course but did not get past the 4th lecture. Maybe the remaining two were to give the meaning of life but I gave up and should have done so earlier. This is my first return for refund so I'm testing that policy on this course. Recommend: Save the cost for return postage and select another course.
Date published: 2016-07-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Lot Left to Talk About I am having a little trouble writing this review. On the one hand, all of the material presented was excellent. The professor did a great job, and the material was interesting. On the other hand, the course is just too short for the breadth of the topic. Each of the six topics really deserves deeper discussion and consideration. I will also acknowledge the criticisms by some other reviewers that much of the material covered is obvious or intuitive. I take issue, however, with that criticism in that there is value to having an intellectual discussion about obvious or intuitive matters because it can raise self-conscious awareness of what is otherwise internalized. This added awareness can help a person become a better conversationalist. While I wish the course was longer and added more depth to each lesson, I still greatly enjoyed it and am glad I watched it.
Date published: 2016-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb!!! I can't rave about this DVD set enough! The content was completely useful, easy to understand, and easy to implement. The professor is one of the best I have seen or heard - I would recommend his lectures regardless of the subject. This course is one you will want to save in your permanent library, view multiple times, and one you will be eager to share with friends.
Date published: 2016-06-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Too Basic I felt that most of this course covered material that was too basic and didn't teach any skills that any adult that had even a basic conversational ability wouldn't already have. At best it put technical names on conversation patterns that we all use anyway, rather than teaching us any new skills. The material that was in the course often felt too spread out to fill the time needed, and quite frankly I was bored for most of the course. Perhaps I was expecting too much.
Date published: 2016-06-03
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 2.5 stars: Not a complete wast of time Bought the Audio Download, on sale. Would not pay full price for this course. 2.5 stars. I wouldn’t say it was a complete waste of time listening to the 6 lectures, but I wouldn’t say I learned very much.
Date published: 2016-05-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Simple basic course I purchased this course for work and my first thought might be that it is more for the younger set than for an experienced veteran. I did like the presentation of the material and I do recommend it to someone younger.
Date published: 2016-03-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Pleasantly surprised after bad reviews I almost didn't get this course because of the bad reviews, saying that it was too basic. It's easy to think, "I already know this stuff" because we all already know and do a lot of this stuff subconsciously. The point is to bring it into conscious awareness and develop a deeper understanding of the function of different conversational conventions. I wonder if some of the bad reviewers listened to the whole thing, because it covered many more topics than just workplace communication. I'm not sure what more could be expected from a 3 hour introduction to the topic. I think most of us, no matter how experience or intelligent we are, have blind spots in our communication patterns. Perhaps we perceive that our communications are effective, but we could use some help in understanding other communication styles. Perhaps all these conventions are second nature to us but it's helpful to understand what's going wrong when we interact with people who don't communicate well. If a person listened to this whole course and really feels that they are the master of all these things already, then I am suspicious that their blind spots are tenacious. In my case, being intelligent and experienced doesn't make up for that I was not taught the art of conversation while I was growing up. I get frustrated by how often I am misunderstood by doctors, and I struggle to come up with small talk questions to ask. I have also been curious about electronic communication etiquette and effectiveness. I found the course useful in these regards. I looked for books on the topic on Amazon and I didn't find one that seemed exactly on this topic, so I bought the audio version of the course and I found it to be very helpful and quite adequate. (She only mentioned a visual hand gesture once that I remember.)
Date published: 2016-03-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Elementary This course would be better entitled "How Polite Conversation Works". This course introduction begins promisingly highlighting how crucial conversation is in our daily lives, but the material quickly becomes tiring and redundant. I found the course focus to be far too narrow, illustrating many standard everyday interactions while largely ignoring more difficult dilemmas involving crisis management, unruly persons and time constraints. 'Conversation' will be most helpful for those who are overly bold or unusually timid and wish to communicate more effectively. Dr. Curzan is an engaging, articulate speaker and any listener will pick up a few useful hints, but will likely be frustrated by its repetition and simplicity.
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good course I took the entire course. This was as effective as face to face training sessions. I am already decided to give my college bound kid this course. I would recommend it to all regardless of their age or experience. Good work.
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Really poor ciommunication skills The presenter in this course does not communicate effectively. The words she uses are fine but ALL other forms of communication she uses are so bad and distracting you can't even try to listen to what she is saying. Do not waste your time or money, there are other much, much better courses on communication here.
Date published: 2015-12-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting but too much jargon I found the material in the course somewhat interesting but masked in linquist's jargon. Once I unscrambled the terminology, I found that most of the information is something I was already aware of from my professional career. I would offer that the material might be of some value to a younger, less experienced audience who may never have heard of "meta-messages" which is how I learned it. For those people this course may offer some valuable information.
Date published: 2015-09-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A linguist tackles conversational flow. As a person who lived overseas for many years -- in Asia, Africa, and Australia -- I find Anne Curzan's approach and her understanding appealing. She is well qualified and grasps her subject well. Just wish this was course was not "Introductory." I wanted to hear far more examples, especially from different cultures. The comparative culture approach offers even greater insight into the natural flow of language -- when you compare the common essentials and the differing sequences of human language flow across time and across cultures. I liked what a got for this price, but it left me wanting to hear much, much more from her treasure trove of insights.
Date published: 2015-04-13
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The Art of stating and re-stating the obvious This is the first time I have been moved to write a review - and the first time I have felt like I wanted a refund. I can only presume the course was intended for 10 year olds with no self-awareness - this course surely can't be for "intelligent" adults. Also, the advertising is misleading suggesting you are going to learn some useful skills to improve your inter-actions and your understanding of them - think again! Before buying another course I am going to make it a point to read all the one star reviews - as I wish I had done with this course - I feel those may be the genuine reviews.............. I am convinced better resources can be found for free elsewhere on the net.
Date published: 2015-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reverting and informative The lecturer presented her tic in a fun and interesting manner. I found her course to be of immediate use both in the workplace and informally.
Date published: 2015-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Eye-opening Useful information that guided me to develop an awareness of what I did wrong all my life. Every parent who struggles with conversation should show this to their older children. Professor Curzan is engaging, shows clear examples of what not to do and what to do and she also explains the respectful distance often required in conversations by paying attention to language and tone. Some of the teachings I instinctively recognized but was not consciously aware of before watching this course. This shy and socially awkward person has a new outlook for the future. I see myself developing conversational skills and who knows, maybe even enjoying future cocktail parties.
Date published: 2015-01-03
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