What is a Conversation?

A conversation is commonly defined as a talk, between two or more people. During the process of talking, people exchange and understand thoughts, ideas, feelings, and information. Conversation requires two key factors to be successful: exchange and understanding. Participants in a conversation can use verbal and non-verbal ways to communicate.

What is a Social Cue?

A social cue is a type of signal. It can be verbal or non-verbal. We often use our face, body, voice, or movements to cue others into what impressions we have and what responses we may expect.

Social cues are like the visual road signs on a signpost; they are visible pieces of information that point you in a specific direction. Understanding social cues is a skill that helps conversation to flow and builds up positive feelings amongst those taking part in the conversation.

social cues


The Two Roles in a Conversation:

  • The Sender begins the process and is the source of the information, command, request, question, or idea.
  • The Receiver has information directed to them. They need to receive the message, decode, and interpret the information so that they comprehend and process what has been communicated.

The Five Parts of a Conversation:

  • The Message is the content the Sender wants to transfer to the Receiver. Tone of voice, and body movement or actions can add a layer of subtext to the information being shared. E.g., Air quotes can add a subtext of irony, and pitch, intonation, volume, and speed can be used to add a subtext of comedy, sarcasm, disbelief, surprise, or authority.
  • The Medium is the form the information takes during communication. Some examples of a communication medium include the body (for games like charades), and mobile phones for texts, voicemail, internet, and app messages.
  • Feedback is the end point of the communication process. A direct (verbal or written) or indirect (gesture or body movement) response provides feedback to the sender that the message has been both received and understood.
  • Noise can be any form of interference that stops the message from being transmitted or understood. E.g., background noise when receiving a mobile phone call outside, or in the case of verbal sounds, noises can be misinterpreted or ambiguous. The expression “Yeah” could mean agreement, a declaration of solidarity, or a question.
  • Context refers to the place and setting where the communication takes place. E.g., A discussion between classmates about school in the school yard would be different from a discussion with parents about school that takes place in the car on the way home.


people having a conversation

What are expected and unexpected behaviours when you’re taking part in conversation?

These can be a little tricky to understand because the type of behaviour depends on who you are speaking to, how well you know them, what your relationship is to them, and where or when the conversation is taking place. E.g., Situation: Speaking to my best friend, on the weekend, in my room, about what present I want the most for my birthday. Communication: Standing on opposite sides of the room, yelling loudly, in a flat tone of voice, no eye-contact, my body angled away from my friend.

Generally expected behaviours:

  • Appropriate personal space: standing next to my best friend, standing one arm’s length away from someone I don’t know well, not having a conversation with someone more than two metres away or in another room, because I won’t be able to process all the information that is being shared.
  • Turn taking: one person talking to themselves is referred to as a monologue. A key feature of a conversation is that it involves at least two people. For the conversation to flow, the speakers taking part need to take turn speaking, listening, and sharing. Sometimes this involves listening to information that may be new or unfamiliar. It is important to ask questions so that as the conversation continues, everyone taking part can understand the subject.
  • Eye contact: many people interpret making eye contact as a social cue, indicating, interest, focus and attention. If you don’t feel comfortable making eye contact, or if it makes it harder for you to focus on what is being said, make sure you let others, especially your friends, teachers and family know so that they don’t misinterpret your behaviour accidently. Sometimes you could face your body towards the speaker to show that you are engaged in conversation, or make brief eye contact, some of the time.

comic showing expected and unexpected behaviours


Generally unexpected behaviours:

  • Unsafe behaviour: unsafe behaviours are not acceptable in any conversation. This includes hurting others, or yourself. It is unexpected to respond to a difference of opinion by hitting the other person, screaming at them, or taking something away from them, such as a ball, book, or iPad. Conversations should happen in safe spaces, with safe behaviours.
  • Inconsistent group behaviour: this can happen when one person in the conversation has misread some of the social cues.For example, a group of four friends are sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning in, and talking quietly. It could be that the proximity of the speakers and the volume they use to speak are social cues, indicating private, or personal information, among a trusted group of friends. It would be unexpected to stand up and shout out your contribution to the conversation because it breaks the confidentiality, respect and trust that has been established amongst the group.

When should you Check-in or Check-out of a Conversation?

Sometimes, personal, social, and environmental factors can change during a conversation. You may be sitting in the schoolyard at lunchtime when a game of football game starts up right next to where your group is seated, or it might start raining heavily. These environmental factors are sometimes unpredictable and out of your control.

One option is to be flexible and relocate your group to a space that is better suited to quiet conversation, before continuing to talk and share.

Another option is to join in the activity or daily schedule, change activities, and continue the conversation at another time or the next day.

If you find changes in an environment are affecting your ability to participate in a conversation, make sure you let others know. They may have different reactions to the same environment and not know that you are uncomfortable.

How to Check-in and Checkout of a Conversation:

speech bubbles Knowing how to become involved in a conversation, and when to leave a conversation is a social skill that takes time and practice.

Often checking-in to a conversation occurs when you have a shared interest in a topic or an experience. When joining in a conversation, take a few moments to observe any social cues or visual communication signals. Try to match the volume and level of interest displayed by others in the conversation.

Checking-out is an important conversation skill because it could be an opportunity to leave a discussion before conflicts or disagreements occur, or if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. A verbal signal or cue, like “I have to go” is a direct way to check-out of a conversation and remove yourself from a specific social situation or environment.

What is Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication?

Verbal language communication: the use of sounds and words to communicate and express ideas, thoughts, feelings, and information.

Non-verbal communication: the use of sign language, symbols, posture, facial expressions, space, energy, appearance, and gesture to communicate ideas, thoughts, feelings, or information.

Non-verbal communication can be a very succinct and expressive way of communication. It can also be challenging and complex, requiring attention and observation skills to successfully interpret messages. Not all non-verbal communication is on topic or related to the conversation taking place.

facial expressions

What is Being Said vs What is Meant –

Learning how to say what you mean, and mean what you say, are acquired social skills. Disagreements and differences of opinion sometimes are sometimes conveyed by using judgemental, dismissive, or disrespectful language. It is easier to say, “That’s dumb”, than it is to unpack an idea, and evaluate a different perspective.

Opinions are often based on strong feelings rather than a broad knowledge base, and because of this, opinions are less likely to be flexible and more likely to be personal. Articulating thoughts and feelings can be a challenge at any age because they require high levels of self-awareness and reflection.

For example: Tony Attwood has a fantastic article “What “I’m Bored” Really Means for Autistic Kids. Some interpretations are:

  • The activity is too easy for me
  • My imagination is more exciting
  • I don’t have the energy to do this
  • This activity is irrelevant
  • I cannot understand what the teacher is saying



  • Conversation, the process of sharing information, ideas, thoughts, and feelings is complex.
  • There are different roles in a conversation and different parts that need to work effectively to both communicate and be understood.
  • There are expected and unexpected behaviours when participating in conversation.
  • There are things to observe before joining a conversation, and ways of exiting a conversation that help the process to flow smoothly.
  • There are verbal and non-verbal forms of communication in most conversations and checking all forms of communication provides more information about thoughts, ideas, and feelings.
  • Sometimes in a conversation, we don’t say what we mean, or mean what we say. Understanding that this can happen and what it means increases communication skills.

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