On Conversational Flow and Resonance

(Epistemic Status: Speculative, a model I haven’t deeply explored – may actually decrease social skill.)

“So, it was a quiet, cold evening in Boston…well ok, it’s never really quiet. Usually there’s sirens or yelling or train noise – I mean, cities in general don’t get quiet. So ok, it’s a cold evening in Boston…colder than it’s been for awhile honestly – I mean, you heard about that thing with the director of the T, right? (One) The whole “no transit system in North America is made for Siberian temperatures!” thing – kinda unprofessional, but honestly, true. …it’s really weird these days how friggen Twitter has become the Communications Channel of The Serious People. Like, what world do we live in where 140 characters is the limit for political and economic policy discussion? (Two)

Though, honestly, it kinda makes sense, technology is so omnipresent these days…how much time do you spend checking your phone, do you think? (Three) Doesn’t it make it so easy to communicate?

Still, in some ways, I think the ease of communication has made it harder to really…connect (Four). A lot of social media shows us our friends and family all day, so we’re not sure why we’re lonely…well, actually, do you feel lonely? (Five) Does in person connection just…feel different?

I feel like…maybe I’m a little estranged from those who love me sometimes. Do you relate? (Six) Have you ever just felt love and not been able to reciprocate? (Seven).”

Conversational flow is your security certificate. The more conversational flow there is, the faster, broader, and more unguarded the conversation gets. It is a mutual agreement that the connection is Trusted. The start of a conversation, especially with a new person, is very careful. It’s meant to follow scripts – to tell you what scripts the other person is running and to tell them what scripts you prefer. It is a mutual search for resonance within the container of the reason for the interaction.

Resonance in and of itself is an important concept – it’s the idea that you can feel things in a very similar way to your conversation partner. That the paths your thoughts take are similar to your conversation partners. That you can model their thoughts and status and feelings without much interpretive work – and that that goes both ways. Resonance is part of the thing that tells you someone is Ingroup. On the flip side, if someone is NOT resonating with you, there’s a sense of awkwardness and anxiety – an aversion to the conversation continuing.

Once resonance has been hit, conversational flow starts, at least a little. You have verified the certificate and now it’s time to determine permissions. You also need to determine who is receiving requests and who is answering them – this changes throughout most conversations, but the ways it changes can be (incompletely) codified. The move of the initiator is creating flow (in the above example, One) and deciding how to drive that flow. The moves available are attempting affect spread (Moving from One to Two by talking about Boston stuff and doing a test of political discussion – might not have worked so well given the tangent seized upon instead; the abstract case is basically starting from one thing and tying another thing into it to see how far out you can broaden a topic while staying resonant), drilling down resonance (going from Two to Three above, finding that shared point about technology and inquiring more about it – Four to Five is also using this move; the abstract case being you found a resonant thing and want to increase flow, so you push deeper into that specific thing), maintain the flow (what’s happening between Three and Four – it’s not really pushing the point deeper, but it’s keeping in the same thread at about the same level), making a risky disclosure (this is what’s happening from Five to Six to Seven – the speaker is both asking for a risky disclosure and making one themselves; abstractly, this is actually kind of tricky because it’s worth a lot of resonance and deep conversation if done right, but if you miss the mark it can almost completely kill flow and affect the overall relationship – I mean, it is a risky disclosure), and backing off (this is turning down the flow, ideally to bring the conversation to a conclusion – I didn’t create an example here.) I’m pretty sure there are other moves, but this tends to be what I’m semiconsciously doing as an initiator when I want to serve conversational flow.

Now, the other side of this is the responder side of things – the moves here are generally simpler but also say a lot about what you’re willing to talk about what you’re not willing to talk about. When a resonance is attempted to create to flow, the responder can choose to accept the resonance (this generally entails just settling into the frame of the conversation, information is largely going to be outflowing from the responder and not much will be coming from the initiator), reject the resonance (this drops the conversational flow and can outright kill the conversation – it might look like giving a very brief answer, or changing the subject suddenly – anything that makes the conversation suddenly awkward – the initiator can then choose whether to back off or create a new resonance), change the resonance (tentatively accept the frame, but then flip the roles to you initiating and putting the other speaker in the responder position – this might look like starting to answer a given question, but then steering to a new topic or a previous topic that focuses more on getting the previous initiator to give information – the information outflow is going to be on the initiator here once you make the change – this is also where backing off as a responder goes), and build the resonance (acceptance of the frame, but basically doing an initiator move like drilling down the resonance or a risky disclosure that provokes the other speaker to want to talk more about their relation to the topic – the information inflow and outflow tends to be egalitarian with this move).

Conversational flow has so many checks placed into it because the more there is, the faster the conversation is (even if it might not be literally faster – someone may be deep in thought while a conversation has powerful flow). When the conversation is faster, the less vetted responses and information sharing is – the trust level of the connection is what allows you to engage is the positive feelings of connection without worrying about it being used to hurt you. Unfortunately, conversational flow is also hackable – we say more online because our conversation partners have much longer to think about a resonant response. I don’t even think it’s a conscious choice to aim for resonance, it’s just the thing you want to have happen and the narrow band and time delay of online interaction makes flow significantly easier to reach. In person, it’s a little harder, but there’s a concept I call a “port scan” that is actually kind of socially aggressive – it’s basically systematically finding someone’s resonance. It seems relatively innocent because conversational flow is in fact the stuff of closeness and connection and generally feels good for all involved, so systematizing a way to find the resonances to reliably create flow should be prosocial; however, it’s also what is politely called “social engineering.”

Overall, conversational flow and resonance are difficult for me to fully understand, but the more I apply the “security certificate” model to it, the more things line up and the scarier flow and resonance become. I’m sure there are other models that are less cynical and might be more useful, but I suppose the lesson here is beware of flow because it’s fun and also how you leak your deepest secrets.

Discussion questions: Does this make sense as a model of conversational flow? Have you ever experienced conversational flow? When resonance occurs, do you find yourself saying more than you intended? Do you notice the moves you make in a conversation? What would you add to this model if it doesn’t fully match your experience?

5 thoughts on “On Conversational Flow and Resonance

  1. I think it depends on context… conversational flow can be desirable on a date, because it allows you to learn about the other person and how they think and what they are interested in much faster. It also indicates a willingness to dispense with formality and an ease with being with the other person which is a good sign – as you said ‘the security certificate being validated’ .

    However in many other contexts I find conversational flow to be highly annoying, for instance if I’m trying to discuss a problem with someone or explore a narrow topic with them. Or if I had something I want to say and the other person moves onto a different topic (this happens sometimes because I’m slow and deliberate about what I say sometimes).

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  2. Definitely agreed – if a group is focusing on a specific thing, the wandering, tangent laden course of conversational flow is ACTIVELY DETRIMENTAL and basically why most people can’t get anything done in meetings. I think more informal or casual conversations and groups benefit a lot from conversational flow, but conversations focused on information exchange and problem solving generally do not benefit.

    Huh, I really appreciate that observation, thank you. It’s helpful for a couple things I was uncertain about.

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  3. The example makes this post so much easier to understand.

    I think I don’t get into conversational flow with most neurotypicals because they frequently ask questions I find hard to answer, or I find awkward. They also say things I don’t know how to respond to automatically (I don’t have that script, let’s say, even though I have practiced saying a thing in response to that kind of question before – it just is unintuitive and sometimes does not stick at all) and then I have to think about what to say deliberately which makes everything awkward.

    But people who are weird the same way as me frequently just say a thing and I’m like oh!!! yeah!!! thing!!!!! me too!!!!!!!!! here’s like a bazillion things I can say about that!!

    Is there any way to nonverbally signal “KEEP GOING WITH THAT TANGENT PLEASE I BEG YOU”?

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    1. Hmm…that’s a tough question. Usually if I want to stay on a tangent or go back to a tangent I just outright say “Hmm, actually, I was kind of wondering if we could talk more about this – I had a thought/question/thing about it.” Or sometimes I’ll just jump directly back without being hedgey about it.

      In terms of nonverbal signals? That really depends on the norms of your space – I think that you can demonstrate less engagement with the topic when it moves on and reward signal things that get closer to the thing that you want to talk about, but this seems harder than just outright asking to move back.

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