Mindfully speaking

To what extent are conversations dialogic in everyday life? To what extent do speakers in dialogue pay attention to sharing the number of utterances and time of talk? Is it important that characteristics like these are shared or is it okay for somebody to speak with an expectation that another will listen, understand, and learn?

As a form of action, speaking is a way to represent what is known about the topic of discussion. In dialogue with others, speaking aloud allows a speaker to represent what s/he knows, for others to listen and make sense of what is said, and for responses to be formulated for purposes such as to elaborate, expand, clarify, question, refute, and accept. Accordingly, when such actions occur there are benefits for the speaker in terms of speaking and in terms of hearing what is said after the initial talk. If there is no opportunity to speak then a person is twice denied. Similarly if there is no follow-up to an utterance the person misses out on learning from a response – or putting it another way learning from others’ talk. In dialogue it seems as if a turn at talk is an opportunity to represent what is known and thereby to learn through action and then to receive responses to what has been said, which creates further opportunities for learning to occur. If the focus remains on what is being said originally then successive turns at talk become resources for speakers and listeners to learn from one another. The value in symmetry, when it comes to speaking, is that every speaker has a chance for the double benefit of acting through speech and acting through listening to others' responses to what was said.

In learning situations, in institutions such as schools and museums, it seems important for learners to practice dialoguing with others so that in every day life they can enact dialogue to maximize opportunities for individuals to communicate clearly with one another while learning from one another. The learning I have in mind is relatively mundane – but extremely important. When interacting with others it is important to understand their perspectives, build respect for what others believe and value highly, and to regard others as resources for personal learning. Whether the dialogue involves a Shakespearean play, how to cook a kimchi pancake, or how to get from Penn Station New York to New York University using the subway, dialogue will necessarily involve a balance that reflects turns at talk and time of talk. The distribution among participants in the dialogue should be relatively equal for a given topic of conversation.

Mindfully speaking involves speakers monitoring the amount of time they have been speaking and the number of turns of talk they have had in relation to others involved in the dialogue. A mindful speaker would wind up a talking turn if and when the amount of time starts to exceed the bounds of what is reasonable. This can be accomplished by transferring the speaking turn to another speaker, preferably one who has not spoken on the topic or has not contributed equitably. Rather than speaking excessively a speaker shows his/her awareness of the value of sharing talk by involving others and thereby to maintaining balance. An important indicator of whether the amount of talk is becoming excessive is the emotions represented in the faces and body movements of others. If speakers carefully monitor others' actions as they participate in dialogue as listeners there can be signs that it is time to transfer opportunities to talk to others rather than continuing to speak. When the signs of others' emotions are such that their interests are waning the speaker can adopt a strategy of opening up the conversation, leaving the decision of who will speak next to the group as a whole, or s/he can redirect the turn of talk to an individual. By monitoring others' emotions information can be gleaned about their levels of comprehension, their interests in what is being said, and the synchrony of their emotional responses with the present utterance/speaker and the topic of dialogue. When asynchronies occur it is important to understand them and to act appropriately.

As well as monitoring others' emotions it is important when speaking mindfully to monitor personal emotions as they emerge, taking care that they do not stick to ongoing conduct, mediating what happens in a deleterious manner. Note, it is not necessary to try to eliminate emotions or to soften their intensity. What seems important is that emotions do not stick to ongoing conduct unless it is seen as important for them to continue and build. This would be true of any emotion. The undesirable feature would be that emotions would build to an extent that dialogue is disrupted and/or diverted in undesirable directions. If this occurs than strategies need to be enacted to become unstuck – that is to let the emotions go so that the focus can return to the purpose of the dialogue. In this example becoming unstuck is a repair ritual. A repair ritual involving "letting go" of emotions is just one example. Another would be when a speaker is interrupted by others' emotions or by others' actions such as gestures and body movements, verbal fillers such as umm, urr, ah, etc. When breaches in the fluency of dialogue occur it is important for the speaker to be able to repair breaches and either continue with an utterance or transfer a turn of talk to others. A condition of mindfully speaking is to be aware that a breach has occurred and assume responsibility to repair the breach and create fluent dialogue as a condition of successful dialogue.

When a participant in a dialogue shows an interest in participating orally it is important not to intentionally shut that person out. The right to speak is neither an individual nor a collective matter – instead, it is an outcome of an individual | collective dialectic. When a person signals an intention to speak, in all the ways that such signals can be transmitted, the speaker should not raise his/her voice to speak over any attempt of the other to get involved by beginning to speak. Although it might be legitimate to argue that the person seeking to speak should not speak until the speaker has finished, it is important to acknowledge the rights of a listener to contribute to dialogue when, if, and as necessary. That is, the right to speak is not preordained as an ongoing (unconditional) right of a speaker. Rather, such a right is contingent on what is happening and there need to be ways of signaling to a speaker that another wishes to participate – to take a turn of talk. Accordingly, when another signals a desire to begin a turn of talk the speaker can pass the baton, confident that s/he can contribute further a little later in the sequence of interactions. A mindful speaker should not assume that what s/he has to say is the most appropriate action in an interaction chain. On the contrary, if another wants to get involved, and it makes sense to do so, then a transfer in the turn of talk can and should occur expeditiously. Failure to transfer a turn of talk will create a breach in the flow because the signal of desire to talk can be interpreted as a contradiction or resistance to enacted culture. The conditions for fluency are that actions occur in a timely manner, are appropriate, and are anticipatory. In the circumstance of a person signaling a desire to assume a turn of talk, a mindful speaker could act synchronously by handing over the baton to the person who desires to speak.

Mindfully speaking necessitates that a speaker is aware of the loudness and frequency of utterances. Both should be comfortable in the sense that participants in dialogue can hear what is said without having to strain to do so and they should not feel the discomfort of shrill utterances that can catalyze negative emotions. Instead, mindfully speaking involves delivery of talk in ways that are comfortable to listen to – not too loud and not too soft, and not containing excessive energy in the higher formants (i.e., overtones). An important aspect of mindfully speaking is that the loudness of what is being said should not disrupt others who are not part of the dialogue. Too often speakers deliver what they have to say with high-intensity that can be heard by others who may not want to be privy to what is being said. A mindful speaker will use an appropriate intensity, pitch, and pattern of intonation. Other characteristics of prosody that should be considered in dialogue are to use speech rhythms that reflect the shared mood of the group, and are consistent across successive speakers. Also, prosodic bridges are usually associated with successful transitions from one speaker to the next. A prosodic bridge entails the symmetry of the intensity and pitch of the utterances of successive speakers. That is, the intensity and pitch used by a speaker who is finishing would be similar to the intensity and pitch of the next speaker. The bridge takes into account physical characteristics of the speakers – such as gender and age. In dialogue, the correlation between the beginning and ending pairs across successive speakers should be highly positive for intensity and the pitch of the fundamental formant (e.g., take 25 successive beginning and ending intensity pairs.  The correlation coefficient between these pairs when mindful speech is occurring would be approximately 0.9.  Similarly, the correlations between F0 pairs across 25 beginning-end pairs also would be strongly positive.)

Other characteristics of mindful speech include speaking for the other, that is, speaking with the comprehension of others as a primary goal. This is best gauged by being attentive to the emotions of others as they may be represented in their actions. It is important that speech is not used in dialogue as a weapon – a tool for social violence. Accordingly, the speaker should be aware of the feelings of others and a necessity to show respect for their identities and especially to show respect for their oral contributions – those that have already been provided and those that are anticipated based on a speaker's knowledge of others participating in the group. That is, a speaker should cushion what s/he has to say with compassion and empathy, having the intention to speak in ways that will promote success for the group as well as the individuals that make up the collective.

Mindfully speaking can be regarded as a process skill that can be developed in a science activity to be enacted as a component of functional literacy in the lifeworld. Whether a person is at home, involved in recreation, shopping for food, being entertained at a Broadway show, or riding home on the subway it is important to be able to speak mindfully and dialogically. As a component of functional literacy it is also the case that participating in mindful speech can enhance the learning of science and contribute to a science of learning.

Draft of “Mindfully Speaking" Heuristic  (codeveloped with Malgorzata Powietrzynska and Konstantinos Alexakos)

When I participate in a conversation: 

·      I act to balance the amount of time I talk

·      When I have been speaking too long I wind up my talking turn

·      Before speaking I pause to make sure the previous speaker has finished

·      As I speak I monitor others’ emotions

·      As I speak I monitor my emotions

·      When asynchronies occur I try to understand them

·      I try to make conversations with others successful

·      When breaches in fluency occur I try to repair them

·      I do not increase the loudness of my voice to continue my talking turn

·      I speak with a similar rhythm to previous speakers

·      I maintain the focus of previous speakers

·      I look for signs that others want to speak

·      I am aware of how long I speak

·      I create chances for others to speak

·      I act to balance my speaking turns

·      The loudness of my talk is appropriate

·      I do not speak to hurt others

·      My talk shows respect for others’ perspectives


© Kenneth Tobin 2015