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Valerij Dem'jankov. Strategies of understanding in dialogue // Dialogue Analysis 2000: Selected Papers from the 10th IADA Anniversary Conference, Bologna 2000. Edited by Marina Bondi and Sorin Stati. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2003. P.39-50.

This page copyright © 2004 V.Dem'jankov.


Introduction 39

Modules 40

2.1. Module 1. Use of linguistic knowledge 40

2.2. Module 2. Generating and testing hypotheses concerning the interlocutor's speech 41

2.3. Module 3. Internalization of the content of speech 41

2.4. Module 4. Computing the general, overall meaning of the speaker's words 43

2.5. Module 5. Realizing similarities and differences between the inner and the model worlds 44

2.6. Module 6. Computing relations inside the model and inside the inner worlds 45

2.7. Module 7. Establishing links between the model world

and the interpreter's knowledge and "contextualization" 46

2.8. Module 8. Establishing an interface between an intermediate stage of

understanding and the behaviour of the addressee 47

2.9. Module 9. Choosing a tonality of understanding 48

3. Conclusion 49

References: 49




Many years ago, Paul Grice (1975) put forward a theory based on the cooperative principle, maxims of conversation and implicatures, to explain why people understand each other. Hearer’s understanding of speaker’s behaviour was thought to result from following these maxims, on the presumption that the speaker behaves cooperatively.

But evidently, different styles of understanding are cooperative to different degrees. Understanding may be even competitive, especially when the hearer presumes to understand things spoken about better than his / her interlocutor.

I would like to sketch an interpretive model of human cooperative communication. i.e., of the case where the hearer tries to be cooperative, interpreting the speech of his or her speaker(s) in a cooperative way.

My proposal is based on a modular view of human mentality in general, and of linguistic competence in particular. This approach consists in analysing the dialogue from the point of view of an interpreter who tries to achieve understanding. Strategy and tactics are relevant for analysing the dialogic moves of the addressee, i.e. of the interpreter. Variations of dialogic styles may be regarded as a result of the choice of strategies.

On the basis on the nine modules of understanding, brought about by the analysis of the concept of ‘understanding’, we can formulate rules that help people to understand one another when they strive for a constructive result in a non-confrontational dialogue. These rules of understanding may be taken as something like conventionalised wisdom or as advice to be tolerant. Being acceptable not to everyone and not always, these rules, taken together, constitute a certain sort of dialogic understanding, something like ‘non-confrontational’ understanding.

I am grouping these rules under nine headings corresponding to nine modules of understanding. Dialogic exchanges from An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde are used by way of illustration of what it means to be an Ideal Interpreter.

These modules are:

1. Use of linguistic knowledge

2. Generating and testing hypotheses concerning the interlocutor’s speech

3. Internalization of the content of speech


4. Computing the total meaning of the speaker’s words

5. Realizing similarities and differences between the inner and the model worlds

6. Computing relations inside the model and inside the inner worlds

7. Establishing links between the model world and the interpreter’s knowledge and «contextualization»

8. Establishing an interface between an intermediate stage of understanding and the behaviour of the addressee

9. Choosing a tonality of understanding


2.1. Module 1. Use of linguistic knowledge

Knowledge of a particular language is an important component of understanding. This view is epitomised by L.Wittgenstein: “Learning a language brings about the understanding of it” L.Wittgenstein (1934/74: 41). This opinion underlies the following dialogue exchange:

MABEL CHILTERN. (Turning to LORD GORING.) Aren’t you coming to the music-room?

LORD GORING. Not if there is any music going on, Miss Mabel.

MABEL CHILTERN. (Severely.) The music is in German. You would not understand it.

But philosophers of language differ in evaluation of what it means to apply linguistic knowledge to understanding in dialogue. Thus, R.Carnap (1938: 425) thought that “we understand a language system or a sign or an expression or a sentence in a language system, if we know the semantic rules of the system”.

Others think that “to understand a sign one has to have mastery of a technique or custom of using it” (cf. McGinn 1984: 3). In the opinion of Dummett (1983, 98), “To understand a word is to grasp its potential contribution to the meaning of any sentence in which it may occur”. And, as Hockett (1984: 42) once noted, “Language performs its primary function not through elegance, which is for mathematicians and other poets, but through persistence”.

Knowing a natural language is a necessary prerequisite for flexible exchange of views. But if we really want to understand another person we should not forget that s/he may have a different understanding of the words we use.


So, rule 1 is: Do not overestimate your linguistic competence, try to be self-critical and do not get offended by what may look like a linguistic aberration by the person you talk to.

Of course, language lessons do not belong to this type of non-confrontational understanding. But a well-trained politician, trying to take into account the linguistic background of the audience, may be said to follow this rule. For example, the use of intellectualist, political or legalistic slang when addressing unprepared persons can produce undesired results. The hearers may suspect that the speaker is only trying to demonstrate his/her intellectual superiority resulting from his/her linguistic superiority.

2.2. Module 2. Generating and testing hypotheses concerning the interlocutor’s speech

Understanding means, amongst other things, construction of appropriate contexts, i.e. “inferring the most plausible interpretations, induced by a systematic interaction between linguistic knowledge, text information and background knowledge” (E.Pause 1983: 398).

We understand a person even before s/he finishes a sentence: in a dialogue, understanding runs simultaneously with utterances. Cf. also:

Readers do eventually arrive at the semantically and pragmatically most plausible analysis of a sentence even when that analysis is not the one preferred on purely structural grounds (cf. Rayner et al. 1983: 370);

The hearer is actively propounding guesses rather than to force the right guess (cf.Sampson 1983: 155).

This complicates perception of speech and may be a cause of misunderstanding. Misunderstanding can be sometimes avoided if the speaker says in the beginning what s/he wanted to say in the end. But how does the hearer know it?

Adequate understanding typically involves hierarchies of hypotheses about the meanings of an utterance. But some interpreters end where others only start. What seems to be truth to some, is but a probability for others.

In this connection, an optimisation rule, rule 2 should apply: Try to formulate the least extravagant and the most reasonable hypotheses about what you are going to hear. The less unfounded expectations you generate, the better for you.

2.3. Module 3. Internalization of the content of speech

The image of a person you talk to is formed by his/her speech both in its entirety and by separate sentences. This characterizes the ‘explanation-driven understanding’ as “the


general process of finding the connection between events in a text” (cf.Wilensky 1982: 347). Sometimes we cannot have a whole picture of his/her inner world, its dynamics and laws, because of unfamiliarity of material it is built with. We construct this world using our familiar images and perceptions, investing part of our perceptions in the perceived world of another person’s speech – let us call it a ‘model world’. This is the essence of perception of the other. For instance:

MR. MONTFORD. Like some supper, Mrs. Marchmont?

MRS. MARCHMONT. (Languidly.) Thank you, Mr. Montford, I never touch supper. (Rises hastily and takes his arm.) But I will sit beside you, and watch you.

MR. MONTFORD. I don’t know that I like being watched when I am eating!

MRS. MARCHMONT. Then I will watch some one else.

MR. MONTFORD. I don’t know that I should like that either.

MRS. MARCHMONT. (Severely.) Pray, Mr. Montford, do not make these painful scenes of jealousy in public!

The problem is this: how does MRS. MARCHMONT arrive at the interpretation of the words of MR. MONTFORD as jealousy? A feasible solution is that she is all the time building a model world[1], mistakenly understanding the remarks of her interlocutor as expression of a deep feeling. It is because of the concern with creation of inner worlds that “there is no longer ‘reality’ as such; reality instead is reported, mediated and ‘constructed by the media’ especially on television” (cf.Weigand 1999: 35).

Some investigators go as far as to assert that we can talk of the “outer” world only insofar as it is relevant for acts of understanding.

Rule 3 is: While listening or reading, do not spare efforts in creating model worlds.

Building a model world may be even considered as taking a position, or a pose, e.g.,

MRS. CHEVELEY. Optimism begins in a broad grin, and Pessimism ends with blue spectacles. Besides, they are both of them merely poses.

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. You prefer to be natural?

MRS. CHEVELEY. Sometimes. But it is such a very difficult pose to keep up.

Patience and intellectual resources of the interpreter are not unlimited, though. The speaker should always keep in mind what may happen when the audience gets tired of constructing model worlds following his/her speech. Interpretation may then result in frustration, bringing about lose of sympathy with the general ideas of the speaker and even, if such frustrations repeat too often, e.g., the desire to let others politicians talk instead, to get a certain person from the political scene.


2.4. Module 4. Computing the general, overall meaning of the speaker’s words

In this module, linguistic interpretation of speech proceeds in two directions.

First, finding out what the speaker means literally. People never care too much about language, every now and then we have to deal with slips of the tongue, unconventional usage, foreign accent, yet we can understand the meaning of speech, because we can figure out the literal sense of the speech.

Second, finding out the indirect meanings of words and computing implicatures. Intentions are relevant and distinguish speakers from one another. Speakers differ in the ways of grouping intentions together, masking them, especially if one has something to conceal. But all such intentions that vary indefinitely from person to person can nevertheless be successfully recognized if we are sufficiently acquainted with the speaker and if we know or can guess what the speaker is ‘getting at’. One of the facets of this intention is what Stati (1990: 31-33) calls ‘pragmatic function’ of the speaker, such as ‘rappel, question, assertion, épistémique, directive, commissive, écho’ and ‘pragmatic superfunctions’: ‘accord, justification et preuve, concession, rectification, désaccord et contestation, critique, objection’.

This is the reason for rule 4: Do not spare efforts to study your interlocutor’s personality, this knowledge will help you in interpreting his/her speech.

Those who regularly follow the speeches of the prominent politicians, in many cases can predict what one can tell and mean and what would be utterly improbable for them to tell. That is, we know in advance their repertoire of genres and the scope of possible reference. This knowledge constitutes the basis for understanding of political jokes, which used to be so popular in Russia, and of political parody, which as a literary genre was almost impossible in Russia before the Perestroyka and was flourishing during the Eltsin’s time. It is important:

in listening, to seek to understand the intent and general frame of discourse of the author [...]. Understanding may disappear for listeners when respective frames of understanding of the universe differ for speaker and listener, but it can be the source of shared humor when both the speaker and listener know that deliberate incongruity of frames of reference is involved (cf. Pike 1982: 105).

Now, the problem is, why questions like ‘Do you really understand what you say?’ are possible, as in the following dialogue:

LORD GORING. I quite agree with you, father. If there was less sympathy in the world there would be less trouble in the world.

LORD CAVERSHAM. (Going towards the smoking-room.) That is a paradox, sir. I hate paradoxes.


LORD GORING. So do I, father. Everybody one meets is a paradox nowadays. It is a great bore. It makes society so obvious.

LORD CAVERSHAM. (Turning round, and looking at his son beneath his bushy eyebrows.) Do you always really understand what you say, sir?

LORD GORING. (After some hesitation.) Yes, father, if I listen attentively.

The question of the father here concerns the ability of his son to understand not only the parts of his own speech, but the sense of the whole discourse and pertains to this module. It is in this sense that I understand is used in the next dialogue, where Lord Goring does not want to know if his servant still understands English, etc., but only if his addressee is able to grasp the whole of the message:

LORD GORING. It is a matter of the gravest importance, Phipps.

PHIPPS. I understand, my lord.

But afterwards it turns out that the servant has really failed to understand his master’s words:

PHIPPS. His lordship told me to ask you, madam, to be kind enough to wait in the drawing-room for him. His lordship will come to you there.

MRS. CHEVELEY. (With a look of surprise.) Lord Goring expects me?

PHIPPS. Yes, madam.

MRS. CHEVELEY. Are you quite sure?

PHIPPS. His lordship told me that if a lady called I was to ask her to wait in the drawing-room.

(Goes to the door of the drawing-room and opens it.) His lordship’s directions on the subject were very precise.

Phipps did understand his master, but he understood him wrong. Misunderstanding is still a sort of understanding.

Evaluating speaker’s actions is one of the tasks of this module. This evaluation must be seen, from the addressee’s point of view, as related to interests and standards (see Hundsnurscher 1995: 82) of the evaluator, i.e. of the interpreter. It is only from the point of view of the interpreter that we can evaluate speaker’s actions as prudent or rash, courteous or rude, appropriate or inappropriate, benevolent or malicious (Ibid.: p.83).

2.5. Module 5. Realizing similarities and differences between the inner and the model worlds

Like our inner world, the model worlds constitute each a whole. The laws of model worlds differ from the laws of our inner world only in the points clearly indicated in speech, when we say and hear, e.g.: I wholly disagree with you, No, by no means, etc. For instance:


LADY MARKBY. … I used to wear yellow a good deal in my early days, and would do so now if Sir John was not so painfully personal in his observations, and a man on the question of dress is always ridiculous, is he not?

MRS. CHEVELEY. Oh, no! I think men are the only authorities on dress.

LADY MARKBY. Really? One wouldn’t say so from the sort of hats they wear? would one?

Outside such episodes of external disagreement, the danger of misunderstandings arises as a result of distraction, naiveté or lack of experience, when one identifies one’s inner world with the model world. This distraction etc. may be real or feinted, as in the following dialogue:

LADY MARKBY. … there are so many sons who won’t have anything to do with their fathers, and so many fathers who won’t speak to their sons. I think myself, it is very much to be regretted.

MRS. CHEVELEY. So do I. Fathers have so much to learn from their sons nowadays.

LADY MARKBY. Really, dear? What?

MRS. CHEVELEY. The art of living. The only really Fine Art we have produced in modern times.

Pronouncing ‘So do I’ commits the speaker to agreement with the opinion of the first speaker, which is not the case, as it turns out later.

Here rule 5 should be applied: Pay special attention to those passages in speech that destroy the integrity and coherence of your picture of what the speaker tells you; inconsistency or incoherence of a model world may sometimes be a result of an inadequate perception of the logically irrefutable images that are imparted to us.

2.6. Module 6. Computing relations inside the model and inside the inner worlds

According to the ‘Postulate of Normalcy’:

The task of the hearer [...] is not just to mould the utterance to match the real world, or his idea of it. If it were so, the hearer would never be able to catch the speaker in an error or a lie, nor would he be able to correct his own misinformation. The hearer, therefore, must decide whether the notion of reality which the speaker is trying to convey is different from that which the hearer entertains, or whether it only seems so due to a literal flaw in the utterance (cf.Hunter 1984: 199).

Amongst other things, this is a matter of identifying internal links between different events in the interlocutor’s message, including his/her arguments. Fillmore notes in this connection:

The language we use reflects the ways in which we «frame» or «schematize» the world of the text; an autonomous consequence of understanding the elemental parts of the text is the experience of attempting to figure out the relevance of schematizations we have been invited to apply, and then to figure out the author’s reasons for inviting us to schematize the text world in that way (cf.Fillmore 1984: 137).


Attention pulsates during communication: what was first in focus drifts away and may come back in a different light. This pulsing reflects unconscious efforts to identify links between different fragments of the re-created picture of the world. How this happens has been thoroughly investigated by the Prague linguists; the task consists in describing “typical ways in which thematic material will be grasped and, in the construction and production of a text, processed and presented” (F.Daneš 1999: 3).

This justifies rule 6: Try to focus on the message, observe the shift of focus, do not concentrate exclusively on your favorite ideas; do not try at any price to find your favorite idea in the speaker’s message, yet do not rule out the possibility of coming across it in a model world of yours.

2.7. Module 7. Establishing links between the model world

and the interpreter’s knowledge and «contextualization»

Lakoff and Johnson state this in the following passage:

We understand a sentence as being true when our understanding of the sentence fits our understanding of the situation closely enough» (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 169).

For instance:

VICOMTE DE NANJAC. Ah! chère Madame, quelle surprise! I have not seen you since Berlin!

MRS. CHEVELEY. Not since Berlin, Vicomte. Five years ago!

Understanding, generally speaking, may increase our stock of knowledge, when some pieces of information are introduced or erased. As Moore and Carling put it:

understanding a fragment of language requires an individual to access an information base which is continually adjusting. Each understanding of an utterance in turn has the effect of causing further reordering of the ‘knowledge base’ (cf. Moore and Carling 1982: 11).

Herein lies the difference between recognition and understanding of a text. Having understood a text, we acquire new information even if we give up more than we get. The interpreter’s feeling that s/he only sees how rules of grammar are realized in a text and does not gain new pieces of knowledge (about the world or opinions of his interlocutor) is a signal of abnormality of dialogue.

So rule 7 comes in: If during communication you feel no changes in your knowledge try to identify the reason. You may be tired, your opinions may wholly coincide with those of your interlocutor (usually this is exciting and therefore pleasant), you may not be interested in the subject. There may be other reasons for that. In any event, communication


which makes you engage only in recognition is meaningless as an episode of understanding.

2.8. Module 8. Establishing an interface between an intermediate stage of

understanding and the behaviour of the addressee

Philosophers of language today often equate understanding with an unuttered answer. M.Bakhtin is a prime example of this attitude. In fact, we can check our understanding by asking questions that would reveal knowledge of a problem under discussion or make the interlocutor explain what he meant, ask him to sum it up, etc.

For instance, understanding a request means being able to meet it or explain your refusal to do so. Some people even think that listening is consenting:

LADY BASILDON. I delight in talking politics. I talk them all day long. But I can’t bear listening to them. I don’t know how the unfortunate men in the House stand these long debates.

LORD GORING. By never listening.


LORD GORING. (In his most serious manner.) Of course. You see, it is a very dangerous thing to listen. If one listens one may be convinced; and a man who allows himself to be convinced by an argument is a thoroughly unreasonable person.

LADY BASILDON. Ah! that accounts for so much in men that I have never understood, and so much in women that their husbands never appreciate in them!

MRS. MARCHMONT. (With a sigh.) Our husbands never appreciate anything in us. We have to go to others for that!

Enigmatic or straightforward may be not only a question but also an answer and even more so, lack of it:

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. Why do you ask me such a question?

LADY CHILTERN. (After a pause.) Why do you not answer it?

A sign of understanding therefore is the willingness to act, which is reflected directly or indirectly in speech. It is not for nothing that speech resembles hypnosis so much. You hear “Clouds fly in the blue sky” and see this sky and white clouds. Unlike during hypnosis, in normal conversation we tend to resist the spell of speech. This defence reaction probably prevents a conversation from becoming an episode of mutual hypnosis. Weigand remarks in this connection:

The general structure of every dialogue always shows three possibilities of reaction: positive, negative and a way that at the beginning leaves the decision open and only after a process of coming to an understanding joins the positive or negative position» (cf.Weigand 1995: 98).


Cf. also:

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. (With a polite bow.) I fear I could hardly agree with you there. But do sit down. And now tell me, what makes you leave your brilliant Vienna for our gloomy London – or perhaps the question is indiscreet?

MRS. CHEVELEY. Questions are never indiscreet. Answers sometimes are.

Nevertheless, typically we follow rule 8, if we sincerely want to understand: Rely on the speaker.

2.9. Module 9. Choosing a tonality of understanding

This module concerns communication as a whole, as group consciousness, so to say. Since understanding consists in the interaction of different operations grouped under the former eight headings, we have always to choose something like a key for perceiving the discourse as a whole. The key determines interaction of these operations throughout an episode of communication. As a consequence, during different episodes we feel different degrees of sympathy with the interlocutor and his/her opinions. Non-confrontational dialogues and confrontation presuppose different tonalities of understanding.

Let us take once more an example from Oscar Wilde, where the consent and the positive attitude of the interlocutors to each other is pre-programmed:

LADY BASILDON. (Looking round through her lorgnette.) I don’t see anybody here to-night whom one could possibly call a serious purpose. The man who took me in to dinner talked to me about his wife the whole time.

MRS. MARCHMONT. How very trivial of him!

LADY BASILDON. Terribly trivial! What did your man talk about?

MRS. MARCHMONT. About myself.

LADY BASILDON. (Languidly.) And were you interested?

MRS. MARCHMONT. (Shaking her head.) Not in the smallest degree.

LADY BASILDON. What martyrs we are, dear Margaret!

MRS. MARCHMONT. (Rising.) And how well it becomes us, Olivia!

We can tentatively formulate rule 9: Try to perceive the discourse as produced by a benevolent speaker with good intentions.

The following dialogue illustrates complying with this rule:

MRS. CHEVELEY. Thank you, Sir Robert. An acquaintance that begins with a compliment is sure to develop into a real friendship. It starts in the right manner. And I find that I know Lady Chiltern already.



MRS. CHEVELEY. Yes. She has just reminded me that we were at school together. I remember it perfectly now. She always got the good conduct prize. I have a distinct recollection of Lady Chiltern always getting the good conduct prize!

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. (Smiling.) And what prizes did you get, Mrs. Cheveley?

MRS. CHEVELEY. My prizes came a little later on in life. I don’t think any of them were for good conduct. I forget!

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. I am sure they were for something charming!

3. Conclusion

I realize that these nine rules and practical application of the strategies of understanding are only an approximation to an ideal human communication. It is quite possible that a sensitive person can do without these rules and understand well and sympathetically his/her interlocutor. However there is always room for improvement. Let us try and improve these rules and our inherent art of applying them for the sake of understanding between individuals and states.


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[1] The English expression follow one’s speech and the inner form of the German verb nachvollziehen reflect this point.