engaging in conversation

What is conversation? What qualities do informal educators need to develop as conversationalists? How we handle questions around aims and objectives?

contents: conversation · engaging in conversation · on aims, objectives and conversation · conclusion · further reading and references

Our model of the working process has five elements:

Assess the situation and our role

Engage in conversation

Question and foster understanding.

Discern what makes for flourishing and commit to change.

Develop a response - plan and make change.

On this page we focus on the second of these elements. The first two sections use material from Jeffs and Smith (1999: 22-27)


What is conversation? As a starter we can think of it as two or more people talking and listening. They may be doing this either face-to-face or at a distance. It can be done via the spoken word or via sign or symbol (the most obvious case here is the use of chat rooms on the internet). This may sound a bit obvious, but as soon as we begin to think about conversation we can see it is a sophisticated activity that we often take for granted. Here we will start by listing some important qualities.

Conversation is a social activity. Apart from talking to ourselves, or to animals, we engage in it with others. To do this we need to think about their feelings, thoughts and needs. In turn, they too must think of us. We have to consider, for example, whether our words could upset or offend others; or whether they will help us in dealing with the matter in hand. Thus, if two or more people are to communicate, then they must:


Think about others' feelings and experiences.

Give each other room to talk.

In other words, talking - conversation - is a reciprocal process.

Conversation involves people agreeing about the topic. We can often spend a great deal of time trying to locate an agenda. We have to come some sort of agreement about what we are going to talk about.

Conversation involves an immediate response. There is not much of a time lag between the action of one person and the response of the other. This means, for example, that what we say may be less thought out. Linked to this is the need for us to be tolerant of what is said to us in the heat of the moment.

Conversation entails certain commitments. For it to work, we have to trust in the others involved. When they say they will do something, for example, then we tend to have to take it at face value. At a minimum we have to be open to the possible truth of their words. We may have doubts - but without a degree of trust or openness to the views of others, conversations (or social life) could not happen (we talk about the need for such trust and tolerance in our discussion of social capital).

Conversation involves interpretation - and in filling the gaps. To make sense of what others are saying we often have to make leaps forward.  People cannot give us all the information we need right at the start. We put their words in context, make assumptions, and add in material to give shape to what they are saying. In other words, conversations often involve people drawing on a large amount of 'background knowledge'. If we do not have it then we have to make great leaps of imagination and hope that all will become clear as the person speaks, or we ask questions.

We can see from this that conversation is a complex activity.

It embodies rules and etiquette. It requires participants to possess skills that are improved with practice. Those who lack these can find themselves socially, even physically, isolated. Those who find it difficult to engage in conversation and dialogue inevitably have fewer chances to practice the art so tend to find themselves locked into a vicious circle. Many find conversation difficult to handle. There are those who seem incapable of listening to others; some so self-obsessed they merely deliver a monologue to an unfortunate audience; others who ignore the verbal and visual clues that enable a conversation to flow; and some so competitive they turn each exchange into a battle of wills from which they must emerge victorious. (Jeffs and Smith 1999: 25)

Informal educators have to be prepared to teach some of the protocols that underpin the art of conversation. They may do this by example and by sensitively devising opportunities for individuals to learn how to listen and participate in dialogue and conversation.

Engaging in conversation

Informal educators are accomplished conversationalists. They have to develop their ability to make contact and establish the basis for talk; to sustain and deepen conversation; and to deal with the tricky area of closing or ending an exchange. Here we want to highlight four crucial aspects. In significant part they are to do with the frame of mind with which we approach conversation.

Being with. To fully engage in conversation, we have to be in a certain frame of mind. We have to be with that person, rather than seeking to act upon them. If we enter into conversation with the desire to act upon the other participants then we are seeing them as objects - things rather than people. It means that we are not able to be fully open to what they are saying. We are not open to interaction.

Being open. Conversation for the informal educator is not, then, about trying to win an argument. Rather, conversation is about understanding and learning. This means looking for the truth in what others are saying – and linking it to our own understandings. One of the fundamental aspects of conversation is that we enter it ready to have our view of things changed in some way. This doesn’t mean that we have to believe everything we hear. Our valuing of truth requires us to ask questions about what we hear (and say!)

Going with the flow. Conversation tends to be unpredictable and we have to be ready to cover a lot of ground. We do not know talk might lead. We may start with one subject but that can quickly change as we ask questions or express interest. Informal educators have to ‘go with the flow’. There may be moments when they can bring the conversation back to a particular focus, or introduce new material, but a lot for much of the time they will be listening and joining in, seeing where the talk will lead (and how best they can make their contribution as educators).

Moving between different forms of conversation. Conversations change. We move from one mode of speaking to another. We may shift from a chat into serious discussion, from making a joke into argument, from talking about soap opera into disclosing something about our personal life. We, thus, have to attend to these shifts so that we make the right response. We also have to work at creating an environment in which shifts can occur. For example, we need to work giving people the ‘space’ to move from casual conversation into exploring some issue or problem they are facing. In many respects, this area is one of the great qualities of informal educators. They have to be able to switch gear, and be on constant lookout for signals that people want to deepen or lighten the conversation.

On aims, objectives and conversation

All this means that while we as educators may have some overarching aims, when it comes to engaging in conversation it is not possible to have clear objectives beforehand in respect of the sorts of subject matter discussed – and the outcomes we expect. Entering with this sort of objective can subvert the very basis on which conversation flourishes. We can end up trying to impose our view on others. This is not to say that we enter conversations with a blank sheet. As educators we will generally have some sort of agenda – a list of some of the things that we might like to see discussed. We can ask people to join us in this – but as we saw above, agreeing on a topic is a mutual activity.

So how do informal educators approach the questions of direction in conversation. They may introduce topics, invite others to join them – but they have to work with others to agree the focus. One reference point may be the sorts of issues and questions they have identified with respect to the people involved. We may know, for example, that a person is going through a bad time after the death of their mother. This may then be an item our ‘agenda’. We may broach the subject, or ask a question about how they are feeling. We test the water. If a response is not forthcoming then we could look for some other topic. We may also try to find a way of indicating to the person that if they want to talk about the subject then we’d be happy to listen.

Whether we come back to the subject will depend on how we relate the specifics of the situation to what we believe makes for human flourishing. We enter conversations with ideas about what may make for the good – both in society and for the individual – and in the interaction we keep these in mind. Our responses change with the information we gain and the sense we make of it. We can quickly see that if we are true to the spirit of conversation then any objectives we may have around the other person will alter as we hear what they have to say and consider it with regard to our developing understanding of what makes for human flourishing.

What we can have in this situation are working objectives that change as the conversation evolves. These are more likely to focus on what we do rather than upon changes in the other person. We may seek to introduce ideas around say, respecting the views of others, into the conversation. We hope that people will pick up on our intervention. What we don’t have is the sort of behavioural objective associated with product approaches (see, for example, the discussion of product approaches to curriculum making). An example of such an outcome or product objective would be: ‘By the end of this conversation those involved will be able to talk respectfully with each other’. What we do as informal educators is to work at creating environments in which people can learn to treat each other with respect. In other words the sorts of objectives we are primarily concerned with are process-oriented.


Conversation lies at the heart of informal education. Just how we engage in it – the spirit with which we join with others – is of fundamental importance. We look to be with others, to be open to what they say, and to see where the interactions take us. We introduce material, encourage people to explore it, but there is a limit to how far we can pursue this if we are to stay true to the spirit of conversation.

At certain times we may shift gear - and move into a more formal exchange. This sort of conversation may well take the form of ‘working with an individual or group’. Here there may well be more formal or overt discussions about what constitutes the focus, and rules about how participants work together.  We look in more detail at this in the following sections:

Question and foster understanding

Discern what makes for human flourishing and cultivate a commitment to change

Develop a response and make change.

Further reading and references

For starters go to Jeffs and Smith (1999), chapter two.

The best introduction to conversation is Ronald Wardhaugh's (1985) book. Deborah Tannen has written a number of books about women and men in conversation (1991) and the impact of conversational styles on relations with others (1992)- and these are also useful introductions to the area. A quirky, but useful, introduction is provided by Theodore Zeldin'(1998).

Andy Gibson and Gaynor Clarke have written a practical guide for project workers that looks at dialogue and how it can be built.

For the whole area of encounters the most rewarding reading is still Erving Goffman (1959; ). Tom Burns has written an excellent overview of his work.

There are a number of explorations of talk and dialogue in education. The classic discussion of dialogue is by Paulo Freire, but perhaps the best exploration of the area is by Nicholas Burbules. A useful, recent introduction to classroom talk and learning is by Neil Mercer.

Burbules, N. C. (1993) Dialogue in Teaching. Theory and practice, New York: Teachers College Press.

Burns, T. (1992) Erving Goffman, London: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gibson, A. and Clarke, G. (1995) Project-Based Group Work Facilitator's Manual. Young people, youth workers and projects, London: Jessica Kingsley.

Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1969 edn.), Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Goffman, E. (1961) Encounters. Two studies in the sociology of interaction, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

infedcov.jpg (18462 bytes)Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1999) Informal Education. Conversation, learning and democracy, Ticknall: Education Now.

Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge. Talk amongst teachers and learners, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Tannen, D. (1991) You Just Don't Understand. Women and men in conversation, London: Virago.

Tannen, D. (1992) That's Not What I Mean! How conversational style makes or breaks your relations with others, London: Virago.

Wardhaugh, R. (1985) How Conversation Works, Oxford: Blackwell.

Zeldin, T.   (1998) Conversation: How Talk Can Change Your Life, London: Harvill Press.

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published November 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014