Turkey Talk: Listening Differently with Conversation Analysis

Ah, the Thanksgiving meal!  Full of family, fine food, and conversation that can sometimes makes your hair stand on end. So rather than just sitting there rolling your eyes or darting off to watch the football game, try honing your listening skills by listening to the talk at a deeper level. Forget the words and listen to what the talk is trying to do.  Let me explain.

Consider the following cockpit voice-recorder transcript from the ill-fated Air Florida Flight 90, which crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River in 1982 due to ice on the plane’s wings. Seventy-four passengers and crewmembers were killed.


Co-Pilot: Look how the ice is just hanging on his … ah … back, back there. See that? … See all those icicles on the back there and everything?

Pilot: Yeah.

Co-Pilot: Boy, this is a … this is a losing battle here on trying to de-ice those things. It gives you a false feeling of security, that’s all that does.

Time passes… and they begin their take-off.

Co-Pilot: … That don’t seem right, does it? (Three-second pause.)  Ah… that’s not right. (Pause.) Well…

Pilot: Yes it is, there’s eighty (referring to accelerating airspeed).

Co-Pilot: Naw, I don’t think it’s right. (Seven-second pause.) Ah, maybe it is.[i]


Go back and read the transcript again, this time counting the number of times that the co-pilot says, “We shouldn’t take off.” How many do you count? He never says it? Once? From a conversation analysis perspective, there are three such statements in his first utterance.

And why the long pause near the end of the last sentence in this transcript? Read that sentence out loud, using a time device to fully count the seven-second pause. Wow, that’s a long pause. And, following that pause, was the co-pilot now agreeing with the pilot, changing his mind?

Now, go back and read the section of the transcript presented above again, this time with the following question in mind: What is the talk trying to do in those first statements?

The method in which you are now listening is part of a research methodology called conversation analysis. It is a different and very informative way of listening to talk. Conversation analysis (CA) seeks to understand meaning-making in conversations, be it a one-on-one conversation or a group of people. When looking at what the talk is trying to “do,” conversation analysis practitioners examine hesitations, silences, interruptions, initiation of topics—all of the components that are part and parcel of our everyday talk.[ii] It wasn’t invented as a listening tool; it was invented to look at human interaction by slowing it down to have a record of what was really happening but, as it turns out, an incredible by-product is that we start listening differently.

You already know a bit about this. Just think of the teenager who sits down for dinner and starts asking Mom or Dad how their day was. Mom and Dad immediately get suspicious and ask, “What’s wrong?” They’re practicing conversation analysis. They recognize the utterance, “How was your day?” has nothing to do with a seeking information as to the happenings of the day, but rather is a precursor to some bad news or a request for money or the car.

This kind of detailed talk analysis is a career passion for Dr. Felicia Roberts, professor and associate head in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. Felicia’s focus is on using (CA) to understand what is happening at a granular level in face-to-face communications such as those between doctor-patient and parent-child in contexts such as conversations at the dinner table. To get some insights on what the talk is trying to do in the airline transcript, I asked Felicia about the co-pilot’s first statement:

Look how the ice is just hanging on his … ah … back, back there. See that? … See all those icicles on the back there and everything?

What was happening there?

“That’s what’s known as a ‘report,’” Felicia explained, “and the thing about reports is that they are deceptively neutral. For instance, imagine someone walking into a meeting room and saying, ‘Hey, it is cold in here.’ Then someone else gets up and closes the window. That person heard it is a request, not just a report.” The co-pilot was likely not just idly commenting on, reporting on, the fact that ice was hanging off the wings. He was, within the rules of the flight deck, attempting to call the pilot’s attention to a significant safety issue.

This deeper kind of listening is a vital skill for leaders. Listening below the level of the talk can offer vital clues as to what might really be happening that, for various organizational reasons, cannot be stated directly.  As Felicia noted, “Reports can mean, ‘Hey, guys, we have a situation here.’”  By listening at this deeper level, a leader can start asking questions vital in uncovering what kind of situation is present.

We can all practice this kind of listening when we sit down for the Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. When old Uncle Bob starts up one of his political rants and you hear Aunt Martha say, “Bob, care for a second helping?” you can listen at a level below Aunt Martha’s talk and smile inside, knowing that her question likely had nothing to do with soliciting information regarding his need for more turkey, but rather was trying to get him to cease and desist with his speech. (Another stop-the-speech alternative is the ever-so popular question of, “Has the game started yet?”)

Beware if you are the recipient of your mother-in-law-from the-south’s comment when she walks in the door of, “Oh, bless your heart. Who dressed you this morning?”  As any good southerner knows, this is not a compliment nor an inquiry into assistance received while getting dressed. That talk is trying to tell you she thinks your taste in clothing is poor and that you might want to quit mashing the potatoes and go change.

Get ready to grab some coats when a dinner guest pushes back from the table and says, “That was the best dinner we have ever had, isn’t it honey? Just really enjoyed the meal!” While your guests might indeed be complimenting the meal, it is also highly likely that they are getting ready to leave (even more likely if the attempt to get Uncle Bob to stop his speech failed).

As a final note, you don’t have to listen with such an ear for the children’s talk. What they are saying and what they are trying to do with their talk tends to be the same. That’s why there’s a thing called the children’s table on Thanksgiving Day.  Happy Thanksgiving!

[i] National Transportation Safety Board, Aircraft Accident Report: Air Florida, Inc., Boeing 737-222, N62AF, Collision with 14th Street Bridge, Near Washington National Airport, Washington, D.C., January 13, 1982, NTSB-AAR-82-8 (National Transportation Safety Board: Washington, DC, 1982), 114, 115, 118, 131.

[ii] Katherine Rosback, “The Talk of Transition: An Analysis of the Communicative Processes in a Family Firm Succession” (master’s thesis, Purdue University, 2002).

About the author: Katherine Rosback