Turn-Taking

Give and Take in Friendly and Not-So-Friendly Conversations

One big point to remember throughout: A conversation, by definition, is a two-way street. If only one person gets to speak, it’s not a conversation. If both speak but one doesn’t listen, it’s not a conversation.

Turn-taking is like a complicated dance requiring excellent timing and cooperation, and requiring a lot of practice for anyone to master. There are regional, ethnic, and gender differences in how we apply the rules. Power also plays a role, with “superiors” potentially controlling the agenda, determining who speaks when, how much time is spent on a given topic, etc.
First, we’ll focus on “normal” (friendly) conversations between relative equals, with some side notes about differences to watch out for. Then we’ll turn our attention to less friendly conversations, where conflicts between participants may cause alternations to the turn-taking rules.

A  Typical Turn Has 3 Parts

Most turns at talk consist of three recognizable chunks: the opening connects it to the previous turn, the actual content (the message you’re focused on expressing), and the ending signals. We’re not going to talk about the actual content of turns here, because we assume that you usually know what you want to say (and most of the other pages on this website offer insights on how to say what you want to say without causing offense or expressing unintended social messages). This module focuses on the more technical aspects of turn-taking: how to get started and how to end a turn so that you are perceived as contributing appropriately to the conversation. We actually start by discussing the ending signals — because if you can’t recognize that another speaker is reaching the end of their turn, then you never get to start!

'Having The Floor'


In typical conversations, we recognize who “has the floor” at a given moment; that is, whose turn it is to speak and thus who we should be listening to. Most of the time, only one person is speaking at a time, so this is pretty easy to recognize. (Sometimes a conversation with more people fragments into smaller simultaneous conversations (each having fewer participants), in which case each smaller conversation recognizes a different (but single) person as having the floor.) The person who has the floor has the right to expect active listening from everyone else, but also has the responsibility not to hog the floor, not to turn the conversation into a monologue. That is, they can’t hold the floor indefinitely; they have to eventually cede their turn. How long is long enough for a turn depends on multiple factors, including power (where superiors essentially have the right to lecture and/or bore their subordinates but not vice versa) and how much interest the other participants have in what you’re saying. (See how much to say for more information about this.)

Signs that your turns-at-talk are too long:

  • Other participants in the conversation show increasing signs of boredom or annoyance while you speak.
  • Other participants keep trying to cut you off, with false starts (which you keep talking over).
  • Other people drop out of the conversation, although you wanted to keep going.

Ending Signals

Speakers usually send multiple signals that they are ready to give up the floor, that they’ve finished what they wanted to say. The most obvious sign is if they deliberately “give away” the floor to another speaker, designating the next speaker by name or by gaze, as described in the next section. Even if they are not so obvious, they will typically lower their pitch and/or volume as they come to the end of a sentence. Often, they trail off as they do this, so the sentence is never actually completed. They may use transition markers such as “so….” or “anyway….”

Selecting the Next Speaker

In a friendly conversation among relative equals, whoever currently has the floor has the right to select the next speaker. (In more structured interactions with power asymmetries, the person with power has the right to direct all the conversational traffic, e.g., a teacher in a classroom or the boss in the boardroom. They may choose to allow some “free” conversation to flow, but they can step in at any time to take back the floor themselves or to designate someone else to do so.)

In a two-person conversation, there can be no question about who the next speaker is, so if you’re still having trouble with turn-taking in these situations, it is undoubtedly a question of the length of turns (i.e. how much to say): either you’re hogging the floor, or the other person is, or you’re not recognizing each other’s cues for when you want to take the floor.


Selecting By Name

e.g. “Don’t you think so, Pat?”, “Did you want to say something, Kim?”, “Alex, I wanted to ask you…”, “Rita, you’ve got to tell them that story you told me….”, etc.

This makes it pretty much inevitable that the named person gets the next turn; anyone who tries to jump in before the named person speaks will be seen as interrupting (even if the designated person hasn’t said anything yet!). If the named speaker does not wish to contribute to the conversation, they still have to take a turn to refuse to contribute! (Either verbally, by saying something like “no, no, that’s okay,” or “Hmmm, I don’t know, let me think about it,” e.g. or with an obvious nonverbal signal such as shrugging apologetically, with a fake (social) smile and raised eyebrows.)

If someone has indicated that they want a turn (by repeatedly trying to catch your eye and hold eye contact as you speak, by increasing their minimal responses and other active listening cues, by making false starts), this is a way of guaranteeing that they get it, and thus a favor that you can do for them. They’ll appreciate it!

If you think that someone is shy and hesitates to speak, this can be a way of encouraging them. If they really have social anxieties, however, they may not thank you for it.

If you want to force someone to speak, selecting the next speaker by name is the only way to do it, and thus it is common from parent-to-child, from teacher-to-pupil, etc.

Selecting By Gaze

Selecting the next speaker by gaze is even more common in most conversations. Because it is easier to opt out of a nonverbal selection than it is to a verbal one, and thus less of an imposition to the selected person’s sense of power, many conversationalists prefer to accomplish their selection nonverbally.

To do this, they simply concentrate their gaze on the person they select as they signal the upcoming end of their own turn. If all the participants are practicing active listening, they will be largely focusing their gaze on the speaker and can thus follow the direction of the speaker’s gaze, and will understand it as a suggestion for who the next speaker should be. This is possible to recognize and interpret, even for people who are aversive to eye contact, as you are following where the speaker is looking rather than trying to make eye contact with the speaker yourself.

If you want to go next, the strategy most people use is to catch the speaker’s eye, showing signs of interest. If you are aversive to eye contact, this may be difficult for you – but you may develop alternate signs that your friends will recognize, such as increasing your minimal responses. Frequently, turn-seekers will make one or two quiet gasp-like sounds, as if they’re starting to speak (“Ah…. ah….”), but then cutting themselves off to avoid interrupting the current speaker. Don’t do this more than once or twice, however, as it would sound very odd, and the others may become concerned that you were having some sort of medical attack.

To accept the selection, the person receiving the gaze simply returns it and smiles and/or nods slightly. Even if you don’t like to make eye contact, you may be able to recognize when you are being looked at. Rather than truly making return eye contact (although if you can do so very briefly, it would help!), you can look near (at the speaker’s mouth or hairline), while still nodding, smiling and making minimal responses. Other groups members see the eye contact between current and next speaker, and understand that the question has been decided, so someone who tries to “steal” the turn away from the person who has been acknowledged as next speaker will be seen as rude.  Typically, the selected speaker then starts speaking exactly as the current speaker ends, leaving no pause at all, or even slightly overlapping with the end of the current speaker’s turn, without anyone feeling that an interruption has taken place. Women friends overlap so much in same-sex conversation, it can appear to men to be a confusing cacophony, with everyone speaking at once!

To refuse the offered turn-at-talk, the recipient of the gaze does not return it, but instead looks quickly away or down, refusing to allow the current speaker to catch their eye. These behaviors are observed by other participants in the conversation, and it is understood by all that the recipient of the gaze does not wish to speak. The current speaker may then attempt to force the person to speak by designating them by name, or may attempt to select someone else. (So if you’re aversive to eye contact, you’ve probably been thinking all your life that other people didn’t want you to contribute to their conversations – but every time they’ve tried to offer you a turn, you have appeared to refuse it, so they’ve been thinking that you don’t want to talk!)

No Selection

If the current speaker does not select anyone, but simply finishes their turn, any member of the group may self-select, just jumping in. Often, someone who wants the floor will glance quickly around the group to see if anyone else is about to jump in before jumping in themselves – but this is not required, if they’re really excited to contribute to the conversation.

If no one self-selects…. Most Americans (apart from a few distinct subcultures, such as some native American Indians) become very uncomfortable with extended pauses within conversations, so if no one self-selects within a second or two, the last speaker will often reluctantly resume. This is often a sign that there’s a problem with the conversation: that the other speakers aren’t interested in or comfortable with the topic, or that they’re ready for the whole conversation to wrap up.

If two (or more) people simultaneously self-select, speaking at the same time, this is not a problem – in fact, it’s a sign that people are interested in the conversation and eager to contribute – although one or all of the simultaneous talkers may apologize. Typically, if there are acknowledged power differences, the subordinate(s) will show deference by allowing the superior to continue. If the simultaneous speakers are relatively equal in status, one may simply graciously allow the other to continue, by falling silent, not completing their turn. In those cases, it is simple courtesy for the speaker who continues to keep their turn relatively short (understanding that others are waiting to speak) and to designate the one who ceded as the next speaker.

In rare cases, neither one will cede the floor to the other, each growing louder and louder in an attempt to drown out the other. We really don’t recommend this: it’s better to wait a minute to make your contribution (or even risk losing the opportunity to make your contribution altogether) than to look like a jerk engaged in a struggle for dominance. (And those who do this when the other person really should have the floor, because they failed to recognize the previous speaker’s selection, look like big jerks!)

If You’re Not Sure

If you want to take a turn in a multi-person conversation, but you can’t tell whether or not the speaker has designated a next speaker because you weren’t able to follow the gaze cues, your best strategy is to:

  1. Wait a beat before starting. Typically, as discussed above, when a selection has been made and acknowledged, there will frequently be no pause at all between current and next speaker, or they will even overlap, so a pause may be a sign that no speaker was selected. It’s not a sure thing, though, as a designated speaker may just be taking a second to think before replying.

  2. Start with something like “I’m sorry, but can I just say/ask/interject….?”  That way, even if you are perceived as stealing someone’s turn, you are doing so politely (apologizing for the imposition), and assuring the otherwise-selected speaker that you won’t interrupt for long (by hedging with just).

  3. Make sure to keep your turn short (in case it is an interruption).

  4. Do not designate a following speaker, so that if you did steal someone’s turn, they can jump back in, getting the conversation back on its expected track.

There’s really no downside to this strategy – even if no following speaker had been designated, and all the politeness was unnecessary, you’ll just look extra polite, extra concerned about others’ needs!

Starting Your Turn: Openers

Some people are so eager to make their contribution to a conversation, they neglect to properly introduce their turn. Doing this once in a while is not a problem — it shows how interested and excited you are — but doing it more often than not signals a disregard for others that they may eventually come to resent. We use brief turn-openers to connect our turn to the previous one, to acknowledge that we have heard and understood the previous turn, to signal the relevance of our turn (without which some conversations might be hard to follow), to give an indication of the sort of turn we’re taking (agreeing, disagreeing, etc.), and to avoid causing offense. When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that brief words and phrases can accomplish all these discourse functions simultaneously: they’re definitely not unnecessary fillers or wastes of time


Minimal Responses

As discussed in showing interest, minimal responses such as yeah, mm-hmm, and uh-huh, show that you have heard and understood the current speaker. (Linguists call these “acknowledgment tokens.”) When these overlap with the current speaker, or when they occur alone with rising (question) intonation, these do not typically count as a “turn,” nor as expressions of agreement, just as encouragement for the other person to continue.

When acknowledgment tokens follow a speaker’s turn (rather than overlapping it) and they are pronounced with level or falling intonation and little or no stress, these do not encourage anyone to continue. They show that you have heard and understood, but that you have nothing to add and you’d just as soon change the topic.

If you start with a stressed minimal response and immediately continue with no pause, you have shown that you have heard and understood and are responding to the previous turn. Note that whether or not you go on to agree with the previous speaker, these openers are generally phrased positively. Notice that unlike the casual yeah (which frequently occurs as a single-word minimal response), the more formal yes typically only serves as an acknowledgment token when it occurs as part of larger units (yes and, and yes but), due to the danger that someone might misinterpret it as a sign of actual agreement.

Expressing Surprise

Often, in conversation, someone says something we weren’t expecting, and we want to register our surprise (perhaps before then expressing agreement or disagreement). “Oh!” is the most common marker of surprise, though a startled laugh (or a somewhat swallowed laugh — “Hmp!”) or other interjections such as hey or wow work, too. People use these as conversation openers as well as turn-openers — if you exclaim out loud in the vicinity of friends or co-workers (while reading, e.g.), they feel obliged to ask “What?” When you express surprise over something someone else has said, they know that you heard and understood, and will most likely want to add a comment of some sort.

Agreement

Since minimal responses resemble agreement markers but are interpreted as only acknowledging the ideas expressed, you must be more explicit in your positive evaluations, if you wish to be understood as actually agreeing: “Yes, absolutely!”, “That’s right,” “You’re so right,” “I agree,” “You said it!”, etc.

In addition to overt statements, people often signal agreement indirectly by repeating a word or phrase: e.g. if you say someone is “such a slob,” I could repeat “such a slob!” while nodding. Note that agreement with a previous turn strongly implies that you did hear and understand it, so these comments are not always preceded by acknowledgment tokens — though they often still are. (We’re so used to beginning with these that turns may sound naked without them!) Also, while agreement statements may be as brief as a minimal response (Right!, Totally! or an emphatic Yes!, e.g.), they do count as meaningful “turns,” as opposed to nonverbal displays (e.g. nodding and/or laughing), which remain “off-record,” although they may strongly imply agreement.

Yes and… or just a stressed and are common ways of introducing a new supporting turn, indicating that you agree with the previous turn but also have information to add. “You know what else?” also works. There are quite a few ways of signalling this function that have a much more formal feel: Furthermore… Moreover… Not only that, but… , Not to mention…, In addition. As with a simple agreement, you are not challenging the previous speaker, so acknowledgment of the previous turn can be implied rather than made explicit. The repetition strategy discussed for simple agreement also works here: e.g., if you say someone is “such a slob,” I could echo “such a slob — this one time….” (and go on to add a supporting illustration of his slovenly ways).

Disagreement

Depending on your relationship with the other participants in the conversation, disagreeing can be highly threatening and dispreferred behavior. Even close friends and equals can get angry if they think you’re disagreeing with them without having really heard or understood them or given enough consideration to their arguments and opinions. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to start a disagreeing turn with a positive acknowledgment token. When people feel more free to express disagreements, you sometimes hear people saying (our personal favorite): “Yeah, no.”

In addition to using acknowledgment tokens, it is also a good idea to avoid simple disagreement (even in casual conversations with close friends), but instead to take a fuller turn explaining why you disagree and inviting further conversation on the topic. “Yes, but…”, “Yeah, I don’t know (about that) because…”, “Mm, you know, it seems to me that…”, “Yeah, okay, so are you saying…? Because…” The bolded phrases are all understood as signalling that some disagreement will follow. In some cases, even “God” (if you think it will not offend, or the deformations Gah and gosh) can serve this function, especially when combined with other markers. “God, I don’t know, I think…” In especially fraught circumstances, quite a few of these disagreement markers will co-occur before the actual disagreement is expressed — signalling the speaker’s awareness that this turn will be unwelcome, and their desire to keep the conversation friendly despite the disagreement.

Other disagreement markers include however, on the other hand, and (more formally) on the contrary.

Topic Transition Phrases

As discussed in changing the topic, phrases such as “Did you hear about…?” or “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” or “Anyway,….” signal upcoming changes in topic. Typically, these occur after the previous topic as been exhausted and the last comment on the previous topic has been explicitly acknowledged.

We asked some random people how they can politely interrupt (to join an ongoing conversation): 

Less Friendly Conversations

As you might expect, some of the rules of the game may change if a conversation turns into an argument and people become angry.


Distinguishing Mock Conflict from Real Conflict

In same-sex conversations, males often engage in mock conflicts (playful, friendly teasing arguments and insults, often a session of one-upmanship, as discussed in the gender section). These are less common in all-female conversations, and seldom occur in mixed-sex conversations (outside of flirting interactions).

Mock conflicts tend to be hyperbolic and/or sarcastic enough that participants don’t believe the comments to be intended literally, the vocal tone remains friendly, and there is frequent laughter. Although participants may overlap in their interjections and evaluations of people’s turns, the basic turn-taking rules remain in place.

Sometimes, though, a comment that is intended to be playful hits too close to home, and as a result, the mock conflict escalates into a real one. If you have social communication challenges, you may find it difficult to distinguish when someone is laughing with you versus when they are laughing at you. If someone makes a joking insult or complaint about you, are they trying to be mean, to start an actual argument, or are they being playful? (See expressing emotion, and verify your perceptions of the situation with others before you get angry.) If you respond with hostility to a comment that is intended to be playful, you can do damage not only to your relationship with the individual, but if there are others around, you can look bad in front of them, too — Americans do not have much patience for someone who can’t take a joke. On the other hand, we would not recommend that someone with social challenges initiate a mock conflict because of the risks involved.

Disagreement

Most people find it uncomfortable to disagree in social situations. When they find points of disagreement, each may initially seek to persuade the other — but if neither seems willing to concede, they might quickly move on to other topics, to show that they do agree on other things. For instance, if you think that Ben Affleck makes a terrible Batman and I think he’s the best one yet, we might quickly find that we both thought Michael Keaton and Christian Bale were good Batmen, that we both disliked Val Kilmer, that we enjoyed the old Adam West TV show, etc. Amidst all that agreement, the minor disagreement we discovered doesn’t seem so important.

When somebody refuses to move on from a point of disagreement, the conversation turns into an argument, although it may still remain civil. Some people have “philosophical dispositions,” meaning that they can debate and argue for hours without taking it personally or getting angry. The key to this (in addition to a lot of practice!) is that all parties in the conversation continue to follow the normal rules of turn-taking, so everyone gets to have their say, and everyone knows that their turns are attended to. If you have a philosophical disposition, but the person you’re talking to does not, and you refuse to move on from a disagreement, they may become frustrated and angry with you.

Escalating into Angry Argument

Protracted disagreements can escalate quickly into unpleasant situations, with participants getting annoyed and then angry. Altered turn-taking behaviors can provide early warning signs of rising emotion. When one arguer begins talking over others, trying to drown others out rather than listening to them, insistent on having their say regardless of whether it’s their turn or not, you are in the danger zone. The other participants will feel disrespected and angry, with good reason: someone who won’t listen to you obviously doesn’t respect you or your opinions. Trying to argue with someone who won’t listen is infuriating and pointless. At this point, people will either walk away (perhaps forever), or they will engage in an argument which is no longer only about “it” (the original topic) — it is now also an argument about “us”: who knows more, who is smarter, who is more powerful, etc. Sometimes this is made explicit, with personal insults (“only an idiot would think….” or even more directly, “You’re such a jerk….”), but not always. In any case, the argument is no longer friendly; it has become a hostile competition, with each participant unwilling to “lose,” especially if there are other witnesses present. This can do lasting damage to a relationship, affecting future interactions.

Once you have become engaged in an angry argument about “us,” you cannot win the original argument about “it.” In the best case scenario, you persist and actually “get the last word” but this just means that you look like a jerk, and you still didn’t convince anybody that you were right — you just convinced them that they no longer want to interact with you at this time, and perhaps not ever again. In a worse scenario, you don’t even get the last word, so you failed to convince anybody and you appeared weak in public. In the worst case scenario, someone explodes in anger and there is physical violence.

Talking Over Others

Even if you’re excited about the topic, not angry or annoyed, try your hardest not to be the person who starts breaking the turn-taking rules! If you feel yourself getting excited, take note of it and be extra vigilant about avoiding interruptions. If you still get excited to the point where you are interrupting others, stop, apologize, take a deep breath, and let them speak. This is hard to do, but it is the right answer if you want to be heard: if you have listened to them, they will feel obliged to listen to you, too. The more reasonable you are, the more chance you have of persuading others, so do your best to control your emotions. This way the focus of the argument can remain on the topic that excites you, not on you and what a jerk you’re being. Increasing your use of deference-based politeness to offset the face-threatening-act of arguing would also be strategic here, defusing any anger they might begin to feel toward you.

If someone else is speaking over you, not letting you take your turn, do NOT try to interrupt them or talk louder, and do NOT meet anger with anger: stop, take a deep breath, and let them speak. (Yes, it’s the same advice we gave before, minus the apology.) They may be getting angry because they think you’re not listening, that you don’t respect them, so listening respectfully will defuse their anger and allow them to then consider your point. They may feel ashamed that they were letting themselves get out of control — they know they were being rude — and so may be even more inclined to listen to you once they have had their say. Be sure to use plenty of deference-based politeness when you do speak, to offset the face-threatening-act of arguing.

Ending the Argument

If you feel that you are getting angry or upset, or if they still show signs of anger or of arguing about “us” even after you have listened respectfully to them, end the conversation by saying something like “You seem (or I seem) to be getting worked up about this. Maybe now’s not the best time for this discussion” or “Look, I don’t think there’s much point in arguing about this. I don’t think we’re going to come to any sort of an agreement,” and then walk away. Nobody “wins” or “loses” the argument, but at least you were able to keep the argument about “it,” and avoid damaging the relationship.

We asked some random folks what they do when they strongly disagree with an opinion that someone they’re talking to has expressed: 

We asked some random folks what they do when someone they’re talking to is just plain wrong about facts (not opinions): 

Exercises

Scholarly Sources

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  • Beach, Wayne A. (1993). Transitional regularities for ‘casual’ “Okay” usages. Journal of Pragmatics 19: 325-352.
  • Carroll, Donald. (2011) Taking turns and talking naturally: teaching conversational turn-taking. In Houck, Noel R. & Donna H. Tatsuki (Eds.) Pragmatics : teaching natural conversation. Teachers of English, 91-103.
  • Coates, Jennifer. (1994). No gap, lots of overlap; Turn-taking patterns in the talk of women friends. In Maybib, Janet, and Barry Stierer, eds. Researching Language and Literacy in Social Context: A Reader. Multilingual matters, 177.
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  • Glenn, Phillip & Elizabeth Holt (Eds.) (2013). Studies of Laughter in Interaction. Bloomsbury Academic Press.
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  • Jefferson, Gail. (2002). Is “no” an acknowledgment token? Comparing American and British uses of (+)/(−) tokens. Journal of Pragmatics 34 (10): 1345-1383.
  • Labov, William. (1972). Rules for ritual insults. In Sudnow, David (Ed.) Studies in Social Interaction. The Free Press.
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  • Sacks, Harvey. (1987). On the preferences for agreement and contiguity in sequences in conversation. In Graham Button and John R. E. Lee (Eds.), Talk and social organization. Multilingual Matters, 54-69.
  • Sacks, Harvey, Emanuel A. Schegloff & Gail Jefferson (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of talk in conversation. Language 50(4), 696-735.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1982). Discourse as an interactional achievement: Some uses of “uh huh” and other things that come between sentences. In Deborah Tannen (Ed.), Analyzing discourse: Text and talk — Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics, 71-93. Georgetown University Press.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. (2000). Overlapping talk and the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language in Society, 29(1), 1-63.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. and Harvey Sacks. (1973). Opening up closings. Semiotica 7: 289-327.
  • Schiffrin, Deborah. (1987). Discourse markers. Cambridge University Press.
  • Stivers, Tanya, Nicholas J. Enfield, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, & Gertie Hoymann et al. (2009). Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (26): 10587-92.   http://www.pnas.org/content/106/26/10587.full
  • Tannen, Deborah. (1996). Interpreting interruption in conversation. In Deborah Tannen (Ed.), Gender and discourse. Oxford University Press, 53-83.

(Sorry, we couldn’t find good non-academic sources for this topic.)

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