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Ministry of Education.

Turn Taking

Because conversations need to be organised, there are rules or principles for establishing who talks and then who talks next.

This process is called turn-taking.

There are two guiding principles in conversations:

  1. Only one person should talk at a time.
  2. We cannot have silence.

The transition between one speaker and the next must be as smooth as possible and without a break.

We have different ways of indicating that a turn will be changed:

  • Formal methods: for example, selecting the next speaker by name or raising a hand.
  • Adjacency pairs: for instance, a question requires an answer.
  • Intonation: for instance, a drop in pitch or in loudness.
  • Gesture: for instance, a change in sitting position or an expression of inquiry.
  • The most important device for indicating turn-taking is through a change in gaze direction.

While you are talking, your eyes are down for much of the time. While you are listening, your eyes are up for much of the time.

For much of the time during a conversation, the eyes of the speaker and the listener do not meet. When speakers are coming to the end of a turn, they might look up more frequently, finishing with a steady gaze. This is a sign to the listener that the turn is finishing and that he or she can then come in.

The instruction that some of us were given at school, "Look at me when you speak to me", is unsoundly based. In normal English conversations, a speaker does not look steadily at the listener but rather may give occasional quick glances.

Some people find it impossible to carry on a conversation with someone who is reading the newspaper. We need to be able to see where someone's eyes are directed to know whether we are being listened to.

In telephone conversations, where we cannot see eye gaze, we have to use other clues to establish whether the other person is listening to us.

The rules of turn-taking are designed to help conversation take place smoothly. Interruptions in a conversation are violations of the turn-taking rule.

  • Interruption: where a new speaker interrupts and gains the floor.
  • Butting in: where a new speaker tries to gain the floor but does not succeed.
  • Overlaps: where two speakers are talking at the same time.

Responses such as mmmm and yeah are known as minimal responses. These are not interruptions but rather are devices to show the listener is listening, and they assist the speaker to continue. They are especially important in telephone conversations where the speaker cannot see the listener's eyes and hence must rely on verbal cues to tell whether the listener is paying attention.

There is some evidence that women tend to use minimal responses more than men, and this is a possible reason why, in mixed conversations, men talk more than women. With the encouragement of these minimal responses, men often continue to talk, and without the encouragement of these minimal responses, many women will stop talking.

Story-telling within a conversation is indicated by some kind of preface. This is a signal to the listener that for the duration of the story, there will be no turn-taking. Once the story has finished, the normal sequence of turn-taking can resume. Young children, in learning about this convention, have to be asked not to interrupt when someone is telling a story within a conversation.

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Published on: 07 May 2009