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Turn-taking

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English

Turn-taking is a part of the conversation structure in which one person listens while the other person speaks. As the conversation progresses, the roles of the listener and the speaker move back and forth, which creates a circle of discussion.

Turn-taking is important when it comes to effectively participating and interacting with others. Turn-taking allows active listening and productive discussion.

Turn-Taking Image of two people having a conversation StudySmarterTurn-taking occurs when one person speaks at a time (Pixabay)

What is the structure of turn-taking?

Turn-taking is structured according to the three components - the turn-taking component, the turn allocation component, and rules. These components are established in order to help speakers and listeners appropriately contribute to a conversation.

The structure and organization of turn-taking was first explored by Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Their model of conversation analysis is generally accepted in the field.

The turn-taking component

The turn-taking component includes the main content of the turn. It consists of units and segments of speech in a conversation. They are called turn-construction units.

A transition-relevant point (or a transition-relevant place) is the end of a turn-taking component. The end of a turn-taking component signifies when the turn of the current speaker ends and the opportunity for the next speaker begins.

EVELYN: So that was all that happened to me today. How about you?

Evelyn reaches a transition-relevant point where she has said all she had to say. By asking the question 'How about you? '' She suggests a change of speaker.

The turn allocation component

The turn allocation component contains techniques that are used to appoint the next speaker. There are two techniques:

1. The current speaker chooses the next speaker

EVELYN: So that was all that happened to me today. How about you, Amir?

AMIR: I had a good day, thanks!

In this case, Evelyn addresses the next speaker - Amir - directly, thus letting him know that it is his turn to change from a listener to a speaker. The turn allocation component is different from the turn-taking component because the current speaker uses the name of one of the listeners and, in this way, appoints them as the next speaker. In the case of the turn-taking component, the current speaker asks a general question and doesn't appoint a specific person as the next speaker.

2. The next speaker selects themselves

EVELYN: So that was all that happened to me today.

AMIR: Well that sounds like a blast! Let me tell you what a day I've had...

In this scenario, Evelyn indicates that she has finished speaking by wrapping up. Amir sees this as an opportunity to take the next turn as a speaker.

This type of technique is often used on occasions that involve more than two speakers. For example, let's say that Evelyn and Amir are not the only two people holding the conversation - they are joined by Maya:

EVELYN: So that was all that happened to me today. How about you two?

MAYA: Wow, that's an exciting day.

AMIR: Well that sounds like a blast! Let me tell you what a day I've had.

In the case of three participants in the conversation, Evelyn reaches a transition-relevant point and turns to both Amir and Maya with the question 'How about you two?', thus allowing each one of them to select themselves as the next speaker. Maya gets involved in the conversation by commenting on what Evelyn was talking about but she doesn't answer Evelyn's question so she doesn't select herself as the next speaker. Amir, on the other hand, also shows that he has been listening to Evelyn but he actually starts to answer Evelyn's question, therefore it is his turn.

Rules

The rules of turn-taking determine the next speaker in a way that results in the least number of pauses and overlaps.

When a transition-relevant point is reached, these rules are applied:

1. The current speaker appoints the next speaker.

OR:

2. One of the listeners selects themselves - the first person to speak after the transition-relevant point claims the new turn.

OR:

3. The current speaker doesn't appoint the next speaker, and none of the listeners select themselves. This results in the current speaker continuing to talk until the next transition-relevant point is reached or the conversation comes to an end.

The steps are in this specific order so that two necessary elements of conversation can be maintained:

1. There needs to be only one speaker at a time.

2. The time between one person finishing speaking and another one beginning needs to be as short as possible.

These rules create a socially comfortable conversation without awkward pauses.

What are the types of turn-taking?

While the turn-taking component, the turn-allocation component, and the rules of turn-taking are important parts of conversation, there are some other, more informal indicators that are also a part of the organization of turn-taking. These are the types of turn-taking indicators for a change of turn that propel the conversation forward. Let's have a look at them.

Adjacency pairs

An adjacency pair is when each of the two speakers has one turn at a time. It is a sequence of two related utterances by two different speakers - the second turn is a response to the first.

Adjacency pairs are usually in the form of question-answer:

EVELYN: Did you like your coffee?

MAYA: Yes, it was very nice, thank you.

Adjacency pairs can also come in other forms:

  • Compliment thanks
  • Accusation - admission / denial
  • Request - acceptance / refusal

Intonation

Intonation can be a clear indicator that a turn is changing. If a speaker shows a drop in pitch or in volume, that is often a sign that they are about to stop speaking and that it's time for the next speaker to take over.

Gestures

Gestures can serve as non-vocal signs that the current speaker is ready to allow another person to have their turn to speak. The most common gesture that indicates turn-taking is a gesture that expresses inquiry, such as a hand wave.

Gaze direction

Have you noticed that usually while people are talking, their eyes are cast downwards for the majority of the time? And in most cases, when people are listening to someone else, their eyes are cast upward.

That is why it is often the case that, during a conversation, the eyes of the speaker and the listener don't meet. You can tell that a speaker is reaching a transition-relevant point when they start to look up more frequently and they usually finish talking with a steady gaze. The next speaker can read this as a sign to start talking.

What are some disruptions in turn-taking?

We will now look at some obstacles in conversation that disrupt the flow of turn-taking. The following factors should be avoided to maintain a pleasant and engaging conversation, in which both parties can contribute equally.

Interruption

Interruption occurs when the current speaker has not yet finished talking but a listener cuts in and forcefully selects themselves as the next speaker.

MAYA: And then my uncle told me to calm down, and so I said to him ...

AMIR: Don't you just hate it when they say that! Have I told you about the time when ..

Interruption, as shown in the above example, doesn't allow for the turn-taking to take place as Amir has not allowed Maya to complete her turn. By definition, turn-taking is when one person speaks and the other listens, and the roles are exchanged back and forth without interruption. Bearing this in mind, it is evident that Maya disrupted this dynamic.

Overlaps

Overlap is when two or more speakers speak at the same time.

This can be caused if a listener isn't interested in listening to what the other speaker(s) have to say, or if there is some sort of talking competition or argument between people.

Unlike interruption, overlap is when a listener interrupts the speaker but the speaker doesn't stop talking, which results in two speakers who speak over each other. Interruption is when the listener forces the speaker to give up their role as a speaker and become a listener, while overlap is when there are two speakers (and sometimes no listeners).

Gaps

A gap is a silence at the end of a turn in conversation.

Gaps occur when the current speaker doesn't select the next speaker, or none of the participants in the conversation have selected themselves as the next speaker. Usually, gaps happen between turns but they can also occur during a speaker's turn.

Turn-taking - key takeaways

  • Turn-taking is a conversation structure in which one person listens while the other person speaks. As the conversation progresses, the roles of the listener and the speaker are exchanged back and forth.
  • Turn-taking is organized and structured according to the three components that speakers use to allocate turns - the turn-taking component, the turn allocation component, and rules.
  • The turn-taking component includes the main content of the turn. The end of a turn-taking component is called a transition-relevant point. It signifies when the turn of the current speaker ends and the opportunity for the next speaker to talk begins.
  • The types of turn-taking are adjacency pairs, intonation, gestures and gaze direction. They are indicators of a change of turn.
  • In order for turn-taking in conversation to be maintained, interruption, overlaps and gaps must be avoided.

Turn-taking

Turn-taking is a part of the conversation structure in which one person listens while the other person speaks. As the conversation progresses, the roles of the listener and the speaker move back and forth, which creates a circle of discussion.

Turn-taking is important when it comes to effectively participating and interacting in communication. Turn-taking allows active listening and productive discussion.

This is an example of turn-taking:


A: So I put all the ingredients together and just like that - the cake was ready! I still can’t believe that I decorated my own cake! And the biggest surprise was that everyone loved it. My sister took pictures of it and my grandad said that this was the best cake he had ever tried! Can you believe it?

B: Of course I can! I’m very proud of you!

A: So how was your weekend?

B: Well it wasn’t nearly as exciting as yours, I’m afraid. But I did have a lovely time walking the dogs by the river. It was a beautiful autumn day on Sunday.


Turn-taking is structured according to the three components: the Turn-taking component, the Turn allocation component, and Rules.

The types of turn-taking: Adjacency pairs, Intonation, Gestures, and Gaze direction.

Turn-taking can be disrupted by Interruption, Overlaps and Gaps.

Final Turn-taking Quiz

Question

True or False: The following conversation is an example of turn-taking?


A: The book is about a mermaid who learns how to live on land. It’s like a modern interpretation of The Little Mermaid that, believe it or not,  touches on some important issues in our society. I won’t give away more but I think you’d really enjoy it! I can lend it to you, if you’d like?

B: Sure! I’d love to read it, thanks! 

A: And how about the book you’re reading now? What’s it about?

B: Well it’s very different from what I usually read. It’s actually a very dark thriller kind of book. It’s about this mysterious man who moves into a small town in the middle of nowhere and everyone can tell that he’s clearly hiding something big. I have to say I’m enjoying it so far!


Show answer

Answer

True.


Show question

Question

Which of the following disrupts turn-taking?

Show answer

Answer

 Gap

Show question

Question

Which of the following indicates a change of turn?


Show answer

Answer

 Gesture

Show question

Question

Is this an example of turn-taking?


A: That person is a liar! He lied to me the other day when he told me that my car…

B: Nonsense! He’s never told a lie in his life!


Show answer

Answer

No.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is a transition-relevant point?

Show answer

Answer

 What do you think of this, John?


Show question

Question

Which turn allocation technique is used in this conversation?


ANNE:  And that’s why I’ll never go there again. But you’ll go on Thursday, won’t you, Blair?

BLAIR: Yes, I have to, I’m afraid. I promised my grandma that I’ll attend the event.


Show answer

Answer

 The current speaker chooses the next speaker

Show question

Question

 What is the rule of turn-taking that applies when neither does the current speaker choose the next speaker, nor does the next speaker select themselves?


Show answer

Answer

The current speaker continues to talk until the next transition-relevant point is reached or the conversation comes to an end.

Show question

Question

True or False: This is an adjacency pair.


A: Do you do your own makeup?

B: Yes.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Which turn allocation technique is used in this conversation?


A: I’m telling you, guys, it was such a strange dream. Have any of you had a similar one?

B: I’ve had weird dreams before. One time I dreamt that I was a giant.


Show answer

Answer

The next speaker selects themselves

Show question

Question

Is this a transition-relevant point?


And that’s all that happened at school. Now let me tell you about the more interesting part of my day - dance class.


Show answer

Answer

No.

Show question

Question

Which of the following DOES NOT disrupt turn-taking?


Show answer

Answer

 Gaze direction

Show question

Question

Which of the following DOES NOT indicate a change of turn?


Show answer

Answer

Gap

Show question

Question

True or False: This is an example of interruption.


A: You need to listen to me..

B: No, I don’t!

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

When does overlap occur?


Show answer

Answer

When two speakers speak at the same time

Show question

Question

Turn-taking is when two or more people talk at the same time.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Turn-taking allows _______________ and productive discussion. 

Show answer

Answer

active listening

Show question

Question

The turn-taking component includes the main _______ of the turn.

Show answer

Answer

content

Show question

Question

The turn allocation component contains techniques that are used to _______ the next speaker.

Show answer

Answer

appoint

Show question

Question

True or false?


An adjacency pair is a type of turn-taking.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

How can someone change their intonation to show they are about to stop speaking?

Show answer

Answer

lower the pitch or volume of their voice

Show question

Question

The most common gesture that indicates turn-taking is a gesture that expresses ________.

Show answer

Answer

inquiry

Show question

Question

A transition-relevant point is also known as what?

Show answer

Answer

A transition-relevant place

Show question

Question

True or false?


The rules of turn-taking determine the next speaker in a way that results in the highest number of pauses and overlaps.. 

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

You can tell that a speaker is reaching a transition-relevant point when they start to look ____ more frequently.

Show answer

Answer

up

Show question

Question

For turn-taking to be successful, how many speakers are able to talk at one time?

Show answer

Answer

one

Show question

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