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Are You Confusing
Conversation Purposes?

Confusion about the purpose of a conversation can cause much embarrassment and waste of precious time. On the other hand, multiple purposes that don't compete could enrich any verbal encounter.

by Loren Ekroth, Ph.D.

Anybody who has taken Speech 101 in high school or college learned that speaking has three main purposes: To inform, to persuade, and to entertain.

Conversation, too, could be said to have these purposes.

Other categories for purpose are instrumental and consummatory.

Instrumental: Serving as a means to an end, as "Joe's description was instrumental in making the sale."

Consummatory: Actions that fulfill a personal motive such as a need for connection, or purely for the satisfaction of the process. Much of social conversation is consummatory, "for its own sake."

Problems with confusing purposes

#1 A few years ago when I was teaching a "Small Talk Skills" class for a university continuing education program, a retired lady professor asked me "What's the point?" for small talk. She believed that conversation should always have a practical result as its aim.

(Actually, she was unskilled at social small talk because she sought to turn even conversation into a lecture that explained a concept or solved a problem.)

When I explained to her and the class that small talk was for its own sake, just for the enjoyment of the interchange, and not for any practical purpose except perhaps to build or maintain relationships, she had trouble accepting such a (to her) frivolous purpose.

#2 Recently I met for lunch with a casual acquaintance who works as an entertainer. I thought it generous of him to invite me to lunch.

However, as we chatted about his work and mine, I got the feeling that he was setting me up to sell me on something. As it turned out, I was right.

He was preparing to invite me to a multi-level marketing rally and to get me signed up with the program. The ostensible purpose for lunch was "just to get together," but the actual purpose was to persuade me to join.

I felt somewhat deceived because he wasn't initially open about his real purpose (and because I had driven about 10 miles across town to meet with him.) I could have told him "Thanks for asking, but I'm not interested." during his phone call to invite me and have saved myself the drive and a few hours of time and him the cost of the lunch.

Is it ever OK to converse with mulitple purposes?

Yes. Of course, when the purposes enhance each other and don't compete with each other. Two examples:

#1 Much of employee training these days is called "educainment" because it seeks to inform participants in a fun, enjoyable way. Often such training is highly interactive, employs games, and includes a lot of humor. Such lively learning "gets the wheels turning" and is often far more effective than the old-fashioned and serious lecture mode of training.

#2 An adult conversing with a child may use real-life stories, colorfully told, to teach a lesson or a principle. Children enjoy the stories and remember them for years, often throughout life.

"I'll always remember what my dad told me about how he hunted for rabbits. He was very poor and could afford very little ammunition, so he would wait until he had a certain shot. He taught me to be careful with what I had."

Both purposes, instrumental and consummatory, are important in life.

Sometimes we get most value from just spending time with friends and "shooting the breeze" with no practical purpose in mind. And sometimes we have a practical result in mind, such as teaching a formula or getting a person to change their driving behavior.

I recall a story of the pianist Artur Rubenstein playing a Beethoven sonata for a small audience. After he ended, a woman came up to the piano and asked "What did it mean?"

In response, Rubenstein sat down and played the piece again. The music just meant itself, whatever it was in the hearing.

Loren Ekroth 2007, All rights reserved

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact Loren at Loren@conversation-matters.com. Check out a wealth of valuable resources and articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com and subscribe to his weekly Better Conversations ezine.

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How to Keep a Conversation Alive
Alice in CommunicationLand
Bored With Small Talk? Make It Bigger!
How to ACE Your First Conversations
Don't Make a Nuisance of Yourself!
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