When conversations flow

Fluency plays a role in dialogue as well. In conversations, the presence of flow suggests that the conversation progresses in an easy and comfortable manner (Burgoon et al., 1995; Koudenburg et al., 2011a; 2012). A conversation in which flow is lacking requires more hard work for the ones involved. This suggests that they would probably like each other less, feel that others are less genuinely involved in the conversation, and may feel less confident about their relationship with each other. The interplay between two conversation partners is often considered informative for the quality of their relationship or even for the extent to which they agree with one another (Koudenburg et al., 2012). Think back to the example of having a bad video-conversation with your partner. The uncomfortable silences in the conversation may cause you to doubt not only the connection of the Internet, but also the quality of the relationship of you and your partner.

In sum, disruptions of flow in a monologue can raise doubts about the trustworthiness and likability of a single person, whereas in a dialogue it may have the additional consequence of eroding the quality of relationships between those who interact. In general, research suggests that the fluency with which stimuli can be processed signals a positive state of affairs and is thereby related to positive affect (Winkielman, Schwarz, Fazendeiro, & Reber, 2003). That a fluent conversation arouses a variety of positive emotions could thus be explained by the ease with which fluent conversations are processed.


However, fluency is not the only process that can explain why smoothly flowing conversations are perceived more positively. The concept of conversational flow also relates to the human need to be “in sync” with one another (Marsh, Richardson, Baron, & Schmidt, 2006). Many studies have shown how people attempt to synchronize with their interaction partners, by coordinating their behaviors to each other. This interpersonal coordination underlies a wide array of human activities, ranging from more complicated activities like ballroom dancing to simply walking or talking with friends.

In conversations, interpersonal coordination is found when people adjust the duration of their utterances and their speech rate to one another so that they can switch speaking turns without talking over each other and experiencing awkward silences (Chapple, 1970). Since people are very well-trained in having conversations, they are often able to take turns within milliseconds resulting in a conversational flow of smoothly meshed behaviors. A conversation has flow to the extent that turn-taking breakdowns are less frequent and shorter in duration. A lack of flow is characterized by interruptions, simultaneous speech or mutual silences (Bernieri & Rosenthal, 1991). These adjustments of communicators to one another are important for defining and maintaining interpersonal relationships: Whereas some interaction patterns facilitate smooth and meaningful communication, others may create misunderstanding and discomfort, drifting people further and further apart (Cappella, 1991). A lack of synchronization can give rise to a host of misunderstandings, which can pose a threat to social human needs.

Social Needs


The tendency to behave synchronously is generally explained as a consequence of the need to feel connected to others, or more generally, the need to belong. The need to belong has been identified as one of the most basic of human motivations (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), which plays a role in many human behaviors. It has been hypothesized that being in sync with one another should correspond with an individual’s rapport, liking, or wish to be a “team” with another person, and as such, serve the need to belong. Many studies have shown that individuals who act synchronously are perceived more as a unity and as sharing more rapport than those who behave asynchronously (Lakens, 2010). Moreover, research has demonstrated that numerous interactions with the same partner increase conversational flow as well as interpersonal bonding (Rabinowitz, 2008).

That conversational flow is related to belonging may be most easily illustrated by the consequences of flow disruptions. What happens when the positive experience of flow is disrupted by, for instance, a brief silence? We all know that silences can be pretty awkward, and research shows that even short disruptions in conversational flow can lead to a sharp rise in distress levels (Koudenburg et al., 2011a). In movies, silences are often used to signal non-compliance or confrontation (Piazza, 2006). Some researchers even argue that “silencing someone” is one of the most serious forms of exclusion (e.g. Williams, 2001). Because humans, due to the elementary importance of group membership for our wellbeing, are very sensitive to signals of exclusion, a silence is generally taken as a sign of rejection. In this way, a lack of flow in a conversation may signal that our relationship is not as solid as we thought it was, and that we do not really belong together. In these situations, disruptions of conversational flow can inform us about the status of our relationships and threaten our need to belong (Koudenburg et al., 2011a).

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