The Conditions of Conversation

While we can control how we show up to a conversation, there are still influential dynamics at play beyond our control.

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone at a loud concert?

When someone was rushing out the door?

Have you noticed the difference in how you converse with an authority figure and a child?

Things like setting, timing, and power differential all impact a conversation. 

Here are some more examples where the conditions of the conversation influence how it could unfold:

  • A principal and a student discussing the political climate on campus
  • A date with phones on the table
  • Your friend starts talking about their sex life loudly in public
  • A coworker asks about your weekend when something bad (and private) happened
  • Someone breaks you some bad news when you’re already late for an appointment
  • A sibling brings up something taboo you did during dinner with disapproving relatives
  • You’re spending a quiet afternoon with a friend and have no plans
  • You’re sharing a delicious meal with someone, have had a few drinks and nowhere to be the next day

While these scenarios illustrate some elements that can distract from, complicate, or even enhance a conversation, they aren’t necessarily a nail in the coffin. These are dynamics you will and do encounter regularly in your communications.

They’re the spice of conversation, lending each one its own flavor and dynamics to appreciate and learn to navigate. And like spices, when one accidentally gets dumped into the pot, they can completely overwhelm the dish. Time or power could easily overtake the situation and thus the conversation.

Depending on the situation, we can appreciate things that complicate or create barriers to understanding.

Yeah, we said appreciate! When you become familiar with how the conditions are affecting the conversation, you are better equipped to respond to them. You have more information to work with, which gives you a greater understanding of what you could be missing and keeps you humble.

This is relevant to fairly normal, everyday interactions. However, when you get to more serious conversation conditions (like a woman on trial in a Saudi Arabia or someone is about to pass away) appreciation might not cut it. In more serious situations, it is still helpful to recognize the influence of these factors. With recognition, there may be more of a chance to address them.

An Example of Conditions In Action

Shaban is Kaitlyn’s manager. His job includes training her and helping her grow into her role. When they have their check-in, Shaban asks Kaitlyn what is currently challenging her with the intention of helping her figure out how to navigate whatever it is.

Kaitlyn says she feels everything is fine right now and isn’t feeling that she needs support. Shaban, however, is aware that Kaitlyn is struggling with various responsibilities because she isn’t consistently fulfilling them.

He recognizes that the conditions of their conversation may be influencing what she says: there is not only a power dynamic, but her job could be affected by how competent he views her to be. From her unwillingness to share, Shaban considers that Kaitlyn may feel insecure about her performance and intimidated by her manager, or she could be unaware of the quality of her performance. For him, this means he may need to spend more time building trust in their relationship and ask more direct questions.

Compare Conditions

For each type of condition, consider how each would affect the same conversation. Let’s say the subject is the infamous “Talk” that young teenagers receive to learn about sex.

Time Conditions

You have all night to talk about this


Someone was late or something came up and now you have 10 minutes to talk about this

Power Conditions

This conversation between a doctor and a child


A parent and their step-child who they are not as close with as they’d like to be


This conversation between 12 year old peers, in which the one explaining things is perceived as “cooler” than the other


This conversation between best friends

Setting Conditions

A conversation occurring within the formality of a strict, religious, private school classroom


A conversation occurring during a walk in the woods on a Saturday


A conversation at recess on a loud playground during a stressful day

When communication is or isn’t going as we’d hoped, noting what influences are at play helps us see the bigger picture. 

Being conscious of conditions and their impact gives us access to more information and new ways to look at a situation or interpret what is unfolding. We can listen for distraction, discomfort, restraint, confidence, dismissal, eagerness, etc., and then we can use the new information to inform how we communicate further.

In this scene from The Office, the main character suffers from not being listened to largely due to power dynamics. Especially when the second supervisor comes by his cubicle to reprimand him, it is clear that neither of these men are hearing the main character’s frustration or his willingness to take responsibility. They are blinded by their agenda to tell him what to do. In a different situation where power was not in play, perhaps they would hear him better.

In this comedic short about speed dating, time has a significant impact on the type, quality, and urgency of the conversations between the participants.

In these scenes from the show “Mad Men,” you can find power influencing dynamics all over the place! The two women don’t seek understanding and their roles determine what is appropriate for them to say and respond to- they are in competition for power. Likewise in the second scene between the fired woman and the man, the power differential and cultural gender roles influence how they are both allowed to behave and what is appropriate to say.

Look for these signs:

Wondering if and how power, time, and setting are impacting your conversation negatively? Keep an eye out for the following:

  • Extra Politeness
  • Hesitation
  • Quietness, reservation, restraint
  • Distraction
  • Extra Confidence
  • Dismissal
  • Eagerness
  • Discomfort

When you notice such behavior come up in yourself or the other person, consider what could be influencing the behavior. If you would like to address it and determine a way to even the playing field or optimize the conversation, go ahead and reveal the elephant in the room: ask the person about what you are noticing.

I.e., “I’m noticing you pick at your nails and you seem a bit quiet. I’m wondering how you feel about ___ (the time we have/the setting we’re in/ our relationship) as it pertains to this conversation…what could we do to make this more comfortable?”

Granted, this approach may not always apply. It depends on many factors- too many to list here! So, when in doubt, ask! Ask in as diplomatic and genuine a manner you can muster, like the above example question.

Reveal what you notice and why it concerns you, all while affirming your intention of connection and understanding. Collaborate on a strategy to address/hold the issue if possible.

In many situations, we may not be able to address the condition directly. A black American woman interviewing for a position that has historically only been held by white men- and being interviewed by a white man- may have a wide range of concerns about the interviewing process. An interviewer could have racist biases he is personally unaware of, and thus not consider them in the process of the conversation. In a situation like this, while we’d like to think we would be comfortable talking about the elephant in the room, we may not be. So in these types of interactions, it is still essential to KEEP IN MIND how conditions could influence the dynamics and use that knowledge to inform how we respond and listen to one another.

A Note on Power Differential:

Power dynamics show up in various ways. Keep an eye out for the influences of difference between:

  • Gender roles and sexual identity (different influences depending on culture or era)
  • Expertise
  • Age
  • Economic standing
  • Organizational hierarchies (such as leadership versus entry-level employee)
  • Social hierarchies (such as being well-connected or well-liked or well-known)
  • and beyond…

Try It Out

Reflect: Think back to a challenging conversation you had recently. It doesn’t have to be something extremely intense, but perhaps a talk you came away from dissatisfied for one reason or another.

  • What were the time, setting, and power conditions of this conversation?
  • Could those conditions have been improved? (Conversation take place at a different time/place, power dynamics addressed?)
  • Were there any ‘signs’ that the conditions were’nt right in yours or the other person’s behavior? List them here.
  • What information could you have been missing that might have made the conversation go more smoothly?
  • What do you imagine the conversation would have looked like under the ‘ideal’ conditions?

Who We Listen To

The truth is that we don’t automatically listen to everyone equally. Depending on the type of relationship and how the person communicates, we listen with varying degrees of attention and curiosity.

We May Listen More Openly To Strangers

The depth of the relationship we have with the person we’re conversing with can impact the degree to which we take what they’re saying seriously- or in other words, how much we listen to them. This is a result of our cognitive biases: short-cuts our brain has to help us be efficient in processing information.

The better we think we know someone, the more short-cuts our brain has for them.

Imagine you’re ordering a meal at a restaurant for a group of people. Some of them are immediate family, some are friends, and some are acquaintances. You’re going to be more confident about your selections the better you know someone since there will likely be fewer of them: My sister Jill hates onions so I won’t order anything with onions in it. Whereas with someone you don’t know, your options expand: Derek, who I’ve only met once, might like or dislike anything on this menu! 

While these shortcuts are mostly helpful, they can misinform us. Sure Jill dislikes onions, but if you’d ordered her the Philly Cheese Steak with peppers and onions she would have been delighted.

We’re prone to making assumptions about everyone- close friends and distant strangers alike. However, the more we think we know about someone, the more attached we are to those assumptions and the bigger the block they create between us and real understanding. This means you might not really be listening to and understanding your spouse because you think you already understand them!

We tend to be more curious about (and therefore listen better to) people we have fewer assumptions about. Sometimes this correlates with how well we know them (but it could be overridden by stereotypes).

The following table shows the differences that could arise in how we listen to people we know at various depths. Let’s assume that there is the same level of commitment behind each of these persons’ goal and action plan to lose weight. You, however, do not know that. What differs in each scenario is your reaction, based solely on how much you think you know about them.

An acquaintance tells you they’re trying to lose weight

You take them seriously and think: “They must be working really hard. They’re turning their life around- I wish I could figure that motivation out myself.”

A friend tells you they’re trying to lose weight

You take them fairly seriously and think: “Their intention is pure, they’re probably struggling a bit.”

Your sister tells you she’s trying to lose weight

You don’t take her very seriously: “He’s tried this so many times, probably another phase.”

We (likely or may) listen more seriously to strangers, then a little less to friends, and often even less to close family. Because of this, we can miss deep understanding of the people closest to us. It’s a strong reminder to stay curious with everyone, even the people you’ve known your entire life!

You’re Not Listening. Here’s Why. – The New York Times
This article by Kate Murphy explains the closeness-communication bias and how it causes us to understand people close to us no better than we understand strangers.

An Example Story: Dawn was frustrated that every time there was a dispute between her and her brother he would shut down. Having done this their entire lives, she had always assumed he was using it as a power move: his silence and refusal to engage (known as stonewalling) as a deliberate way to control the dynamic. Dawn had viewed him as being manipulative in this way forever, so when it came up again in a minor argument, she became enraged that he wasn’t taking her perspective seriously or acknowledging her experience. A few days later when they’d both calmed down she told him how angry his manipulation made her. He was shocked and saddened by her interpretation of his behavior. What had been going on for him was totally different: when he got upset, he would shut down to try to control his own mounting anger. He was scared that if he continued to engage when in that state, his anger would escalate and he would do or say something he wouldn’t have control over. His choice to stonewall was an attempt to keep things from getting worse. When Dawn heard this, she felt sad as well- she had seen her brother as being cruel to her their entire relationship when in fact she had totally misunderstood him.

On the flip side, we may be less likely to listen to people we perceive as very different from us.

In this article from the president of the Hewlett Foundation (one of the largest philanthropies in the United States), Larry Kramer explains the rise of ‘tribalism’ in the modern landscape of America. He defines tribalism in contrast to ‘polarization,’ distinguishing it as involving more animosity. He offers that instead of listening to fully understand people with different views from us, we instead do one or a combination of three different things:

  • Act as if the weakest argument for their position is the one everyone has and dismiss the position.
  • Assume the other position has bad motives and they know intrinsically that they’re wrong.
  • Dismiss someone’s position based on a group they identify with.

Similar to Cancel Culture, the online phenomena of removing opinions and people you disagree with from your online bubble, the current trend of tribalism has many of us refusing to listen to anyone we disagree with, and vehemently so in many cases.

Kramer advocates for people to dedicate themselves to the practice of empathic listening to address this issue:

“It is a mental discipline that calls for self-conscious effort, but that anyone can adopt. I say self-conscious, because attending dispassionately to ideas we abhor is neither easy nor natural. It requires discipline and self-honesty: an exercise of mental muscles that, like any muscle, need regular use to stay fit and strong.”

Listening Listening: The Gist Factors in Listening Styles and Levels of Listening Listening Challenges 1: the Dinner Guests Listening Challenges 2 Better Listening Elevated Conversation Hearing and Understanding Listening Practice and Exercises Listening Inspiration and Resources