What are conversational skills?

conversation elt speaking Oct 22, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

Conversations are generally thought of as casual informal chats which are primarily used to build rapport. However, conversations can take place in a more formal context and can have a variety of purposes, including persuading, demonstrating expertise or negotiating a business deal.

One misunderstanding of conversational skills is the belief that personality traits and language proficiency are solely responsible for sustaining a conversation. This view neglects other aspects, such as the participants’ perceptions of themselves and their conversation partners. For example, if someone believes that their conversation partner is unfriendly, it is unlikely that they are going to put in much effort into sustaining the interaction.

A holistic view

An indication of a successful conversation is that its purpose is achieved (Eggins & Slade, 2005). Rather than being a static predetermined goal, this purpose is negotiated moment by moment by all conversation participants.

Conversation skills include an ability to initiate, sustain and end a conversation. A lack of any one of these skills may result in individuals initiating new topics inappropriately or ending a conversation abruptly. While it is important to know how to sustain a conversation, it is equally important to know how to begin it and when to end it.

Other aspects of conversation skills are engagement and turn-taking. Engagement can be viewed as an attempt to involve others in a conversation. This may include asking questions to prompt others to contribute.

Theory and practice

Although conversations are highly dynamic, they typically have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Teachers can provide examples of real-life conversations and draw learners’ attention to common initiation strategies. Teachers can highlight aspects such as gender, culture and the relationship between the conversation participants, and discuss how they influence the way conversations are initiated.

While questions are a resource to engage conversation partners and to sustain a conversation, learners can sometimes feel nervous about whether some questions are culturally appropriate. This may prevent learners from going beyond talking about the weather. Teachers can encourage learners to make a list of ‘safe’ topics, such as pets, sports and local news.

Teachers can play audio recordings of authentic conversations and ask learners to discuss the appropriateness of how each conversation ends. The main goal of this activity is to help learners develop pragmatic awareness (Bardovi-Harling et al., 1991).


Bardovi-Harling, K., et al. (1991). Developing pragmatic awareness: Closing the conversation. ELT Journal. 45(1), 4-15.

Eggins, S. & Slade, D. (2005). Analysing casual conversation. Sheffield: Equinox.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

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