From “Rush Hour” to a tidy room: effective conversations find common ground

Have you ever had a conversation with someone, maybe with your spouse, your co-worker, or a student, and based on their response (or lack thereof) you ask yourself, “Did they even hear a word I said?”

In the famous American movie, Rush Hour, the actor Chris Tucker posed the question a different way:

In these instances, and in similar situations like it, conversations can go so awry that you convince yourself that you guys are no longer speaking the same language. But what if there was a way to measure how effective a conversation was?

What if there was a way to know for sure that your student clearly heard and understood that you assigned homework, or that your child heard and understood your instructions to clean their room?

If this lack of listening (or effective communication) is an issue in your conversations or if you find yourself making similar jokes to the meme below, then listen up. This post is for you.

In a recent study published in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Memory and Cognition, Geoffrey McKinley and colleagues Sarah Brown-Schmidt and Aaron Benjamin took on the task of assessing the effectiveness of conversation.

The authors argue that a good measure of determining how effective a conversation went is to assess memory for what was said (termed as item memory), and who said what to whom (called context memory). Given that a conversation (usually) takes place between two or more people, the memory questions can be asked to both speakers and listeners.

McKinley and colleagues predicted that effective communication takes place when speakers and listeners converge on a common ground understanding of what was said in the conversation. Common ground refers to the shared knowledge of conversational partners that develops as new information is exchanged.

For example, when your child understands that “Clean your room”, means make up the bed, vacuum the floor, and straighten up the items on the desk, you have reached a common ground. This allows you to give those same set of instructions, but in fewer words.

The authors hypothesize that memory for what is said and who said it should be related to the level of common ground reached in the conversation.

To test this hypothesis, McKinley and colleagues assigned participants to the role of speakers (directors) and listeners (matchers) and had them perform a referential communication task and a recognition test.

In the referential task, both conversational partners (speaker and listener) saw the same set of pictures, but in different order and importantly, they could not see each other’s display.

The speaker (director) provided a description for each of the pictures in the display and verbally instructed the listener on how to rearrange the pictures into the same order as the speaker’s display. The figure below summarizes the procedure, with the director’s display on the left and the matcher’s display on the right.

Once the speaker provided a description for all of the pictures and the partners established that they were finished rearranging the listener’s display, they advanced to the next round of conversation. The conversational partners performed the referential task for three rounds (the same pictures were shuffled and then presented), before switching roles and then switching conversational partners.

This repeating of the same pictures (referred to as entrainment trials) over three rounds, allowed the partners to develop a common ground –i.e., shared labels for each of the pictures.

Each participant was involved in a total of four conversations of three trials each. In two of the conversations, the participant assumed the role of speaker and in the remaining two the role of listener. After all four conversations, the participants were asked if they recognized the pictures from the referential tasks (presented with an equal number of never before seen pictures) and if they could identify the partner they discussed each picture with.

Memory was assessed as the probability of correct picture recognition and common ground was assessed as the difference in description length of each picture across the entrainment trials. The assumption is that when conversational partners converge on a common ground description of an item, they are able to refer to that item with fewer words.

Consider the following snippet of conversation from participants in the referential task:

The above example demonstrates that by the third trial, the conversational partners used fewer words to refer to the fish in the display, relative to the first trial when more words were needed.

The results showed that the conversational partners reached a common ground. This was evidenced by a significant decrease in description length over entrainment trials. Also, for each loss of one word in description length, the odds of recognizing a picture increased. The figure below shows the probability of item recognition as a function of how much common ground was reached by a pair of participants:

The results further showed that the odds of remembering pictures were significantly greater for the conversational partner in the role of speaker relative to the partner in the role of listener. In other words, speakers had better memory for what was said, than listeners. In contrast, there was no difference between speakers and listeners in remembering who said what (context memory).

So what is the take-home message for effectively communicating to your child that you want their room clean?

Step 1: Establish a common ground. Have multiple rounds of the conversation (entrainment trials) where you instruct your child to clean.

Step 2: Make sure the instruction to clean is short. There is a greater chance that your instructions will be better remembered that way.

Step 3: Speakers remember better. As the speaker, it is more likely that you will remember the instructions better than the listener, so my advice is to have your child repeat the instructions back. This way they have now spoken too.

If all else fails, you could try Chris Tucker’s method!

Featured Psychonomic Society article:

McKinley, G., Brown-Schmidt, S., & Benjamin, A. (2017). Memory for conversation and the development of common ground. Memory & Cognition, DOI: 10.3758/s13421-017-0730-3.


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