Reciprocal Interaction

Question: If our kids are communicating, but going unheard and therefore not being answered, does that effect their ability for secure attachment or impact their level of stress? When does this become part of their biology?

A young girl and her teacher reflect on the experience of shoes.
A young girl and her teacher reflect on the experience of shoes.

When we imagine a conversation, we usually visualize two or more people exchanging information through words. Upon further reflection we also realize that conversation often contains non-verbal communication as well; information shared through body movement, facial expression, and gesture. In the best conversations we share an emotional experience with our partner – “harmonious interactions”.  

In the seeing-hearing world, interaction and conversation usually start visually or auditorily; one person notices another and says hello. One partner may make a comment. One partner may make a request or ask a question. In this context it’s easy to notice a request or comment and, unless we are a bad conversationalist or just plain rude, we affirm the other person by responding. This initial exchange might be brief; a simple request is met or a question answered. Or, the conversational exchange might go on for some time as ideas are discussed, or new thoughts shared. Both parties are emotionally engaged around a common topic. At the end of this exchange we usually end with some form of closure; we don’t want to leave our conversation and/or partner hanging. We say goodbye. This plays out in a similar fashion for individual who are only blind or only deaf.

Looking at our Interaction episode below, we see how a conversation is broken into three distinct parts: the Contact Opening (saying hello), Contact Maintenance (serve and return – the back and forth conversational exchange), and Contact Closing (saying goodbye or next topic please). 

Contact Opening:  As contact is made and interaction opens, hands touch, one person notices the other. A greeting is presented and then affirmed by the partner. A topic is introduced. There is again affirmation from the partner. We have three turns, or exchanges between the partners: I talk, you listen – you talk, I listen – I talk, you listen. Another term for this conversational exchange is “Serve and Return”; think of two people playing tennis, with the ball being served and then being returned back and forth across the net. 

Contact Maintenance: This is where we get most of the action in a conversation. As you can see in the illustration, there are many turns back and forth, represented by the loops. Communication is served by one person and then returned by the other. The rise and fall of of one persons serve being met at the top of the loop by the other persons returned response back down. We also see the emotional content of the conversation rise as each person takes their turn. In this conversation, the we see the loops grow larger and then start to get smaller as the emotion flows and then ebbs. 

The Interaction Episode
The Interaction Episode: Contact Opening, Contact Maintenance, Contact Closing As the narrative flows it grows in intensity of turns before diminishing like a wave to resolve in a shared affective involvement between the players. Credit: Bernadette van den Tillaart


Contact Closing: Conversations need a closing. People don’t hang up the phone without saying goodbye. As we end our exchange each partner closes by taking a turn to let the other know that conversation is coming to an end – goodbye. 

This can also be described when a new topic is introduced within the framework of a larger, longer interaction. Many conversations have multiple topics that are introduced, discussed, and then closed when the next new topic is introduced.

We might visualize two friends coming together who haven’t seen each other in a while. They are walking down the sidewalk on a sunny day. As they greet each other with a hug, one person says hello. The other person asks, “How are you?” She answers “I’m doing well, but did you hear about…?” The conversation is now engaged with great interest from both people. Words are served by one, then returned by the other. They become more excited and more animated in their gestures while their voices rise in pitch and words come faster. Finally, one person notices the time and asks if they can try to meet soon for coffee. Their words are slower and more even, their gestures are less animated. When their plans are made, they both wish the other well and say goodbye.

Yesdy paints Paul's fingernails with help from her teacher.
Yesdy paints Paul’s fingernails with help from her teacher.

We all need close connections with other people–the good feeling of being with someone who understands you and with whom you can share experiences and emotions.

Bernadette Van Den Tillaart, 1999

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