What is “expressing conversational intent”?

When most of us have conversations, or attempt to communicate, we rarely a) formulate our intent or goals for the conversation even to ourselves, and b) even more rarely explain our intent or goals for the conversation to the other person. This is unfortunate because being aware of our own intent, and being able to help the other person understand can help smooth conversations and increase understanding.

Expressing conversational intent is a skill that can be used in almost any conversation. In The Seven Challenges A Workbook and Reader About Communicating More Cooperatively by Dennis Rivers, it’s explained this way:

In order to help your conversation partner cooperate with you and to reduce possible misunderstandings,
start important conversations by inviting your conversation partner to join you in the specific kind of conversation you want to have. The more the conversation is going to mean to you, the more important it is for your conversation partner to understand the big picture. If you need to have a long, complex, or emotion-laden conversation with someone, it will make a big difference if you briefly explain your conversational intention first and then invite the consent of your intended conversation partner.

Here are a few examples also taken from the same source:

  • “Hi, Steve. I need to ask for your help on my project. Got a minute to talk about it?”
  • “Uh…Maria, do you have a minute? Right now I’d like to talk to you about… Is that OK?”
  • “Well, sit down for a minute and let me tell you what happened…”
  • “Hello there, Mr. Sanchez. Say, uh…I’m not completely comfortable about this job. Can we talk about it for a few minutes?”
  • “Hi, Jerry, this is Mike. How ya doin’? I want to talk to you about Fred. He’s in jail again. Is this a good time to talk?”

Notice that in each of the examples there are two parts. First, the explanation of intent, which conveys what the person wants to talk about, and some rationale for why. The second part involves asking for consent from the other person.

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