Communication patterns can reveal a great deal about our social interactions and relationships. But identifying and analyzing them can be pretty complex because people are complex.

Conversation Analysis is a qualitative research method that investigates the communication patterns in human interaction.

For example, the way that people talk to each other can indicate their power and status in a relationship, their level of intimacy, and their cultural background. You can also use conversational analysis to identify and diagnose social problems, such as bullying, harassment, and abuse.

The Fundamentals of Conversational Analysis

The Fundamentals of Conversational Analysis

Conversational analysis is a fascinating and powerful tool that enables you to better understand yourself and the people around you. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the basics of conversational analysis:

Historical background and emergence of CA

Conversational analysis emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s from the work of a group of sociologists and anthropologists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). 

These scholars, including Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson, were focused on understanding how people achieve mutual understanding in conversation. They listened to real-time conversations and then created a set of tools to carefully analyze the conversation such as turn-taking, adjacency pairs, and repair mechanisms.

After the first study publication, conversational analysis has become a widely adopted research method in sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and communication to study different concepts.

Core Principles and Concepts of Conversational analysis

Here are some rules and patterns you need to effectively analyze conversations:

  • Turn-taking: Most people take turns talking. This is called turn-taking. There are a few different ways that people take turns. For example, people might take turns when there is a pause in the conversation, or take turns when the other person finishes speaking.
  • Adjacency pair: An adjacency pair is a sequence of two turns at talk that are related to each other. For example, if someone says “hello,” the other person is expected to say “hello” back. This is an example of an adjacency pair.
  • Repair mechanisms and breakdowns:  People also make mistakes when they are talking such as saying something out of context, using an unfamiliar word, or forgetting what they were going to say. Repair mechanisms such as repetition and clarification are how they fix the misunderstanding or mishearing.
  • Politeness theory: Politeness theory is the study of how people use language to be polite. For example, people might use indirect language instead of direct language, or apologize if they realize they have said something that might hurt another person’s feelings.
  • Grice’s Maxims and implicature: When we talk to each other, we want to be understood. We also want to understand what the other person is saying. This is called cooperation. H.P. Grice was a philosopher who studied how we cooperate in conversation. He came up with four rules that we follow when we cooperate:
    • Maxim of Quality: Be truthful (Don’t say things that you know aren’t true)
    • Maxim of Quantity: Be informative (Say enough so that the other person understands what you mean, but don’t say too much)
    • The Maxim of Relevance: Be relevant (Only talk about things that are related to the conversation)
    • Maxim of Manner: Be clear (Say things in a way that is easy to understand)

Role of Context in Conversational Analysis

Core Principles and Concepts of Conversational analysis

Context is another key factor in conversational analysis. Here are the different types of contexts that influence conversations:

  • Physical context: The physical setting of a conversation can also affect how people talk, like how close they are to each other or how far away they are from each other. For example, people may talk louder when they are far apart from one another than they would if they were talking close.
  • Social context: The social context of a conversation can include things like the relationship between the speakers and their social roles. For example, people may talk differently to their friends than they would to their boss.
  • Cultural context: The cultural context of a conversation can include things like the speakers’ shared values and beliefs. For example, people from different cultures may have different norms about things like turn-taking and politeness.

Methodology and Techniques in Conversational Analysis

Historical background and emergence of CA

Conversational methodologies and techniques allow you to gather, analyze, and explain conversations. Let’s look at the techniques and methods you need for a successful conversational analysis:

1. Data Collection Methods

The two most common data collection methods in CA are transcription and audio/video recordings. Here’s how they work:

  • Audio/video recordings: collect data by recording naturally occurring conversations. You can use audio recording, video recording, or computer-mediated communication (CMC) recording.
  • Transcription: After collecting the data, you have to transcribe it by writing down the conversation word-for-word, including all of the nonverbal cues, such as pauses, hesitations, and laughter.

2. Data Analysis Techniques

After collecting your data, you need to analyze it to understand the recorded interaction. Here are a couple of ways to do it: 

  • Transcription conventions: These are specific examples of non-verbal cues (such as pauses, hesitation, and laughter) to make sure your transcriptions are precise and consistent.
  • Identifying turn boundaries: You also need to identify the turn boundaries. This is the point at which one speaker finishes talking and another speaker begins talking. This allows you to understand how people take turns speaking and how they manage the conversation.
  • Marking repairs and overlaps: Repairs are when a speaker corrects something they have just said, or when they ask for clarification from the listener. Overlaps are when two speakers start talking at the same time. Noting this helps you understand how people resolve conflicts or misunderstandings.
  • Analyzing pauses and silences: Pauses and silences can also be significant in CA analysis. For example, a long pause may indicate that a speaker is having trouble finding the right words, or that they are waiting for the listener to respond.

3. Illustration of Conversation Analysis

Starting with the transcript:

(0.4secs) A: (laughs) So, how are you doing?

(0.4secs) B: I’m good, I’m good.

(0.8secs) A: Hmm (pause), are you sure? You can talk to me, you know

(0.6secs) B: (laughs) I’m good, honestly, I would tell you if I wasn’t

(0.4secs) A: Okay, I’m good too, thanks for asking (laughs)

Here’s what you can identify from the conversation:

Turn-taking: The conversation begins with a greeting from A, and B responds to the greeting with a positive statement. A then pauses for 0.8 seconds before asking a follow-up question.

B laughs and then responds to the question with reassurance. Finally, A acknowledges B’s response and then ends the conversation with a positive statement.

Pauses: A pauses for 0.8 seconds before asking the follow-up question. This pause could be interpreted in several ways. For example, it could be a way for A to give B time to think about their response, or it could be a way for A to indicate that they are still interested in hearing what B has to say.

Finally, B pauses for 0.6 seconds before responding to the follow-up question. This pause could be interpreted as a way for B to gather their thoughts, or it could be a way for B to emphasize their reassurance.

Repairs: There are no repairs in this conversation.

Overlaps: There are no overlaps in this conversation.

Conclusion: The conversation is polite and respectful. A and B are both taking turns speaking and listening, and they are both using pauses and laughter to regulate the flow of the conversation.

What Conversational Analysis Reveals

Role of Context in Conversational Analysis

Human conversation is complex and fascinating, it allows us to build relationships, share information, and create meaning.  Here’s how to understand the hidden patterns and dynamics of conversation:

1. Power Dynamics in Conversations

Using conversation analysis, you can break down the power dynamics that affect how people interact with each other. For example, people in higher social positions are more likely to interrupt and overlap with each other than those in lower positions.

People with higher social status may also be more likely to control the topic of conversation and to give orders and directives.

2. Gender and language

Gender also plays a role in conversational analysis. For instance, women are more likely to speak softly and politely than men. Women are also more likely to engage in indirect language and avoid conflict.

But keep in mind that these are just general stereotypes. There’s a ton of variation in how people talk and gender isn’t the only thing that affects how people talk.

3. Politeness strategies across cultures

Conversational analysis research also shows that politeness strategies tend to vary across cultures. For example, in some cultures, it is considered courteous to be indirect and avoid confrontation. On the other hand, in other cultures, it is courteous to speak up and be honest.

Applications of Conversational Analysis

Methodology and Techniques in Conversational Analysis

Conversational analysis is not an abstract concept, there are several ways to apply it to the real world. Here are some of them:

1. Linguistics and Sociolinguistics

You can use conversational analysis to evaluate various linguistic and sociolinguistic phenomena, such as turn-taking, adjacency pairs, repair mechanisms, and politeness strategies. You can also use it to study how language is used to construct and maintain social identity.

For example, studying a conversation between two friends to see how they use language to build rapport and maintain their friendship.

2. Communication disorders and therapies

Conversational analysis helps you to detect communication disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder and aphasia. It also allows you to develop therapies for people with communication disorders.

For example, you can study the conversations of people with autism spectrum disorder to better understand their communication challenges and develop a therapy for people that focuses on helping them understand nuances in communication.

3. Business and negotiation strategies

You can also use conversational analysis to train business professionals and negotiators on how to communicate more effectively. For example, as a CA trainer, you can teach business professionals to use politeness strategies to avoid conflict and reach agreements.

4. Media and discourse analysis

Conversational analysis helps you understand the media and popular discourse, such as news interviews, political speeches, and social media posts. For example, as a conversational analyst, you can analyze a political speech to see how the speaker uses language to construct their identity and persuade the audience.

Challenges and Criticisms of Conversational Analysis

What Conversational Analysis Reveals

Conversation analysis is a powerful research method for understanding human interaction, but it is not without its challenges and criticisms. The following are the most common:

1. Reductionist Tendencies

Conversation analysis is often criticized for being too reductive. It only looks at the small details of what people are talking about and doesn’t take into account the bigger picture of how society, culture, and institutions interact with each other. 

Some critics argue that this reductive approach can result in a misrepresentation of conversation. For example, a CA researcher might study a conversation between a doctor and a patient, and they might find that the doctor interrupts the patient frequently, and interpret it as a power dynamic.

However, the researcher might ignore the fact that the doctor is interrupting the patient because they are in a hurry to see their next patient.

2. Ethical Considerations in Analyzing Private Conversations

Another issue that CA faces is the ethical implications of analyzing private conversations. A lot of times, CA researchers try to capture data by recording conversations that happen naturally, like conversations between friends or family. 

However, this approach could be violating people’s privacy by recording their conversations without their permission. You have to carefully consider the ethical implications of their research, and take steps to protect the privacy of participants.

3. Cultural Bias and Limitations in Cross-Cultural Analysis

The majority of conversational analysis research has been conducted in predominantly Western cultures, so there’s a chance that CA research might be culturally biased. A major implication of this is that CA researchers may develop conversation theories based on Western cultural standards, and these theories may not be relevant to non-Western cultures.


Conversational is a powerful research tool that reveals hidden patterns in social interaction and communication. It shows how power dynamics, gender, and culture can impact conversations.

We hope you apply this guide to better understand conversations, and improve your communication, negotiation, and training skills.

  • Moradeke Owa
  • on 10 min read


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