conversational grounding (communication)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

conversational grounding
"In 1996, the Texas columnist Joe Bob Briggs surveyed the range of hot reassurance interrogations—from the ubiquitous you know what I'm sayin' here? to the older you get my drift?—and wondered, 'Did we go through some kind of national anxiety attack where the entire population decided that nobody was listening?'" (William Safire, The Right Word, 2004).


In conversation analysis, conversational grounding is the interactive process by which speakers and listeners make efforts to ensure that messages are appropriately understood.

Grounding, says William S. Horton, "refers to the means by which individuals work together to establish mutual beliefs that particular utterances have been understood as intended. Once these beliefs have been established, then the information being communicated by the speaker (along with the belief that it has been mutually understood) can be taken to be in common ground" ("Shared Knowledge, Mutual Understanding, and Meaning Negotiation" in Cognitive Pragmatics, 2012).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Where have you been?" Connie asks.

    "Sorry, baby," I say. "I ran into an old friend. This is Juan.”

    “I was worried about you,” she says. “Couldn't you have called?”

    “Sorry,” I say again. “I didn't mean it. Juan gave me a ride home.”

    “Wassup, chica?” Juan says. “Got a bun in the oven, I see.”

    “My name isn't chica,” Connie says. "Rosie, who is this guy?"

    “This is Juan. We grew up together," I say. "He's from the old barrio.”

    "Oh, great,” says Connie. And without another word, she goes in the front door.

    I turn to Juan. “I know you been in prison a while,” I say, “but you better watch your mouth.”

    "Whoa, easy,” says Juan. “I was just trying to break the ice.”

    “You don't need to be breaking the ice. You wanna stay tonight, you just chill out. You feel me?” I say.

    “I feel you, man,” says Juan. “Relax. I'm cool.”
    (William Kowalski, The Barrio Kings. Orca, 2010)

  • An Interactive Process
    "In conversation, each participant's messages build on previously established common ground. New contributions are presented and then 'grounded' through an acceptance phase. In some cases, contributions may be grounded immediately by an acknowledgment ('uh huh,' 'okay'). In other cases, sequences of questions, repairs, clarifications, and the like may be required before grounding is established (Jefferson, 1972; Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). The term grounding refers to the interactive process by which communicators exchange evidence about what they do or do not understand over the course of a conversation, as they accrue common ground (Clark & Brennan, 1991)."
    (Robert E. Kraut, Susan R. Fussell, and Jane Siegel, "Visual Cues in Maintaining Situational Awareness and Grounding Conversations." Human-Computer Interaction: Talking About Things in Mediated Conversations, vol. 18, 2003)
  • Visual Cues
    "Visual cues provided by others' facial expressions, actions, and jointly observable task objects and environment can facilitate situation awareness and conversational grounding (e.g., Daly-Jones, Monk , & Watts, 1998). In the operating room setting, nurses use visual cues to predict what surgeons will do next and what implements they will need (Nardi, et al., 1993). Similarly, helpers in our bicycle repair task can monitor workers' facial expressions, workers' actions, and changes in the state of the bicycle, and tailor their instructions to ongoing changes in the workers' need for assistance."
    (Susan R. Fussell, Robert E. Kraut, Darren Gergle, and Leslie D. Setlock, "Visual Cues as Evidence of Others' Minds in Collaborative Physical Tasks." Other Minds: How Humans Bridge the Divide Between Self and Others, ed. by Bertram F. Malle and Sara D. Hodges. Guilford Press, 2005)
  • The Lighter Side of Conversational Grounding
    Michael Scott: I don't understand why you keep picking on me.
    Stanley Hudson: Oh, for the love of God . . ..
    Michael Scott: You just do and I don't know why, so please help me understand.
    Stanley Hudson: Fine. Here it is. You are a person I do not respect. The things you say, your actions, your methods and style, everything you do, I would do it the opposite way.
    Michael Scott: Well, Stanley, maybe you are feeling that you don't respect me because you don't know me very well.
    Stanley Hudson: Michael, I've known you a very long time and the more I've gotten to know you, the less I have come to respect you. Any other theories?
    Michael Scott: All right, you don't respect me. I accept that. But listen to me, you can't talk to me that way in this office, you just can't. I am your boss. I can't allow it.
    Stanley Hudson: Fair enough.
    (Steve Carell and Leslie David Baker in "Did I Stutter?" The Office, 2008)
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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "conversational grounding (communication)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 20, 2016, Nordquist, Richard. (2016, August 20). conversational grounding (communication). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "conversational grounding (communication)." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 21, 2017).