The Science of Conversation

The Science of Conversation

August 25, 2020

Our brains are wired for conversation. Did you know that you can speak 7-8 times faster than you can write? And you can assemble speech in your mind 10 times faster than that?

Between your ears, you have a ripping fast network of neurons that are wired for the art of conversation.  During a conversation, our brains are triggering millions of neurochemical reactions that influence our state of mind and affect the way we communicate and build trust with others.  According to Richard Glaser Ph.D., a leading biochemist, “conversations are not just a way of connecting and sharing information, they actually trigger physical and emotional changes in the brain that can open you up to having healthy, trusting conversations or close you down to speak from fear, caution, and anxiety.”  This means that not only are we wired for conversation, but the act of conversation improves our ability to engage in it.

Wired for speed

Our brains have the need for speed.  The average person can compose written business communication (email or chat) at only 19 words per minute (WPM), which seems pretty fast until you realize that the average person can speak at 150 WPM which is almost 8 times faster.  And we can listen even faster than that.  The average person can comprehend speech at about 400 WPM, which is faster than most people can read.

Inner speech is even more remarkable.  The brain is able to conduct inner speech (such as thinking through a problem) anywhere between 1000-3000 WPM.  To give you an idea for how fast that is, John Moschitta Jr., was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s fastest speaker.  You may remember him from a series of commercials in the 80s and 90s.  If you listen intently, you can surprisingly comprehend everything he’s saying.  Can you believe that John has been recorded speaking at 586 WPM?  That’s almost as amazing as your brain’s ability to comprehend it.

Mind the gap

There is an incredible characteristic of conversation that is universal across all languages and cultures–the gap between turns.  Linguists have studied conversations across all languages and found that there is a universally adopted 200-millisecond gap in between turns.  It’s even present in sign language conversations.  One-fifth of a second (200 milliseconds) is a very short amount of time.  The average reaction time to a stimulus, such as a starting buzzer, is between 150 and 300 milliseconds. 

For an experiment, let’s do this.  Get out your phone and open a stopwatch app.  Try to tap stop as fast as you can after you tap start.  How fast were you?  It’s actually pretty hard to do it faster than 200 milliseconds–even if you’re anticipating it.

That puts in perspective how amazing this universal 200-millisecond gap really is.  In fact, gaps of only 600-700 milliseconds are what is considered an awkwardly long pause.  How can that be since it takes at least 600 milliseconds for us to pull a single word from memory and begin to speak it?  The answer is simple.

We build our responses during our partner’s turn.

Even with that supercomputer of a brain of we have, it is not fast enough to build a thoughtful response in less than the universally accepted (and expected) 200 milliseconds.  Therefore, we are constructing our reply while our partner is speaking.  Which means, unfortunately, that we’re not fully listening.  We listen as well as we can while crafting our own clever response so that when the time comes, we can pounce on it. 

There is a wide variety in an individual’s ability to do this well.  I’m sure everyone has had the chance to have a conversation with someone who is obviously more focused on what they are going to say than what you are saying.  This is especially true in heated conversations or arguments.  Because of the importance, people become less focused on listening and more focused on our reply so that we can not only hit the expected 200-millisecond gap but also throw a decent amount of shade.

“When you take into account the complexity of what’s going into these short turns, you start to realize that this is an elite behavior, Dolphins can swim amazingly fast, and eagles can fly as high as a jet, but this is our trick.” -  Stephen Levinson - Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics


Time to think

Knowing that an acceptable gap in conversation in 200 milliseconds and allowing a gap of only 600 milliseconds is considered an awkwardly long pause creates a bit of a problem–which is that the show must go on.  Meaning, in an attempt to keep the conversation flowing, we are wired across all languages and cultures to do the best we can with what our brains have conjured during our partner’s turn.  This problem is especially evident in education. Let’s take a trip to the classroom.

Mary Budd Rowe is an educational researcher that in the 1970s noticed that the gaps between teacher’s questions and the student’s responses rarely lasted longer than 1.5 seconds.  She discovered also that when these periods of silence lasted at least 3 seconds, the quality of the student’s response dramatically improved.  It order to attain these benefits, teachers were urged to wait in silence for 3 or more seconds after their questions.  With this small change,  the length and correctness of student responses increased and the number of “I don’t know” and no answer responses decreased.  Students spoke with greater precision and comprehension when given time to think.

This is also true in business communication.  We are able to produce better responses spoken with more precision when given time to think.  Because of the 200-millisecond gap expectation, this is very difficult to do in synchronous communication such as a meeting or call.  In those environments, three seconds feels like 3 minutes and would normally be interrupted with “Are you OK?” or “Did I drop you?” responses.

One of the key frameworks used for behavior management and improving mental health is learning the ability to decouple the stimulus from the response.  Psychologists teach patients to take the extra step of observing between hearing and responding.  When doing this we are able to decouple our reaction from the action.  Developing this ability promotes mental health because we learn to better control our emotions and see that we are not a victim of circumstance which can help us develop more constructive responses.

Better conversation

Conversation is a beautiful, complex, and delicate dance between two or more brains.  There are many reasons to be in awe at our sheer ability to engage in it.

At Volley, we are driven by the idea of better conversations.  Conversations are what move work forward and are at the heart of all important business communication.  We envision conversations that leverage all of the advantages and none of the disadvantages of the underlying science. 

Conversations are turn-based.  By allowing those turns to be taken asynchronously with recorded video, we are able to leverage many natural advantages.  First, you are able to speak messages that you may have written in email or chat, which as we’ve mentioned, makes you 8 times faster than you would have been.  And those messages are recorded at close range with a user-facing camera which allows the full spectrum of verbal and visual communication to be delivered.  And because our super-powered brain is able to comprehend speech much faster, we allow you to speed up your partner in a conversation.  Imagine the world around you at 2x.

We’ve also minimized the disadvantages of conversation by allowing turns to be taken asynchronously.  By doing this, a person is able to wait 3 seconds or 3 hours to form their response–as much time as they need.  This will help improve communication naturally by allowing turns in a conversation to be more precise, succinct, and thoughtful. 

Taking asynchronous turns also allows for more inclusive conversation.  Everyone has an equal opportunity to hit the record button.  This is not the case in synchronous conversations that happen in meetings or calls.  It’s far too easy for delicate or marginalized voices or opinions to be trampled by the most aggressive or vocal in a synchronous meeting.

Because of these things, we feel we can confidently say that we are using the science to create a better form of conversation.  A volley, if you will.  If this sounds exciting to you, please consider joining our waitlist.