What kind of conversationalist are you? Do you often start the conversation in a group setting? Are you a chatterbox who can talk endlessly about anything at all? Do you wait on the sidelines, occasionally cracking a joke or adding an interesting detail? The answer may be “it depends.” A lot of us have gotten to where we are by knowing when to listen and when to talk—and getting fairly good at both.
Conversation is rarely just a transfer of information. We talk/sign/type to express our personalities, to build social bonds (however fleeting), to entertain each other with our brains. It’s such a fundamental act that you might expect us to master it when we’re young and never worry about it again. But this is far from true. Conversations are hard, and sometimes we place unreasonable expectations on ourselves, especially in cultures that are hypersensitive to “awkwardness.” The barest moment of silence or tension or misunderstanding can make us wonder, “am I bad at this?”
(Yes and no. We’re all bad at this in different ways.)
What follows is a framework I’ve made for understanding the different roles we play in conversation and how we can capitalize on our various strengths. If it smacks of pop-psychology fluff, the kind you get in personality type quizzes and self-help books, let me be the first to admit this is all made up and isn’t backed by any research. Still, you might find it a useful jumping-off point for your own introspection. And besides, it’s fun.
I’ve based the categories on roles you might find in a group of tabletop RPG players. If this isn’t familiar terminology to you, don’t sweat it—it’s mostly decorative, and I’ll spell things out as I go along.
We begin with the bread and butter of group conversations: the fighter.
The fighter’s role is simple, dependable, and obvious: they talk first. They’re the quarterback, the head chef, the person in the driver’s seat. They’re always ready with something to discuss, and most of the time it’s so relevant to the group or person they’re talking to that in retrospect it will seem impossible for the conversation to have gone any other way. They’re in charge of the conversation throughout its journey, although this may be subtle. Fighters love to start a discussion and then see it take on a life of its own, talking as much or as little as necessary to keep things moving in the right direction.
Stress-free. Fighters excel at making conversations inclusive, easygoing, and fun. Breaking the ice is their specialty.
Step right up. It’s easy to make friends with a fighter. It can take years to become best friends with a fighter, because let’s be honest, everyone wants that. But that just goes to show how approachable they are.
False sense of security. If there’s usually a fighter around, you may get lulled into thinking conversations are easier than they are. Then one day the fighter doesn’t show up for lunch and it all falls apart. Everyone’s too quiet, topics of conversation are stilted or boring, and you start to think, “are we even friends?”
Oh yeah, and by the way. Fighters are conversation starters, not conversation carriers. If they try to tell a story or explain something in depth they’re at risk of going off on six or seven different tangents before they finish (if they finish at all), and each of those tangents is worth a conversation of its own. Try to keep track of where they started; they’ll need a reminder.
Bards are classic chatterboxes. Give them a topic and they’ll run with it, demonstrating practically unlimited conversational stamina. They always have something to share: a story, a revelation about themselves, a book recommendation, a surprising factoid, a recipe, a bit of advice. They’re the biggest piece of the conversation pie and they love nothing more than a listening ear.
A brief 15-minute intermission. If a bard is talking, it’s a safe bet they’ll keep going. This gives everyone else a chance to recharge. Some of us really need this. Thinking of things to say can be exhausting if there isn’t a bard around to take the pressure off.
The party don’t stop. The success of many conversations depends on how long they last. If the goal is to bond with each other or pass the time, a bard’s skills can be indispensable. A discussion that takes five minutes without them will take an hour with them. This is mostly a good thing.
Say goodbye already. There’s no such thing as a “quick chat” with a bard. Even after they say “I really should be going,” stand up, and grab their coat, they’ll be talking for another half hour. If they call you to ask a yes-or-no question, the call will take at least five minutes. This is occasionally frustrating. When you’re in a hurry and need the bare minimum, you’ll have a tough time extracting it.
Wait, what? It can be hard for a bard to keep their details in order. If they tell a story, you’re probably not hearing it for the first time. They’ve told it so often they can’t remember who’s heard what. A few things may get lost in the mix, and in the worst case scenario the story won’t make sense at all.
When you’re talking to a tank, you can tell they’re hanging on your every word. You’ll never meet a better listener. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see this is empathy in action: they’re interested in what you’re saying because you’re interested in what you’re saying. Tanks make you feel heard and validated by being present, committed, engaged, and nonjudgmental. They’re masters of active listening, always ready with a followup question, a nod, an unsarcastic “wow.” You’ll leave a conversation with a tank feeling better about yourself, even if they didn’t hardly say anything.
I still see you. You know when you start to talk at the same time as someone else, or someone talks over you, and everyone turns to listen to them? A tank will stay focused on you. They’re okay missing the more exciting parts of the discussion so you don’t feel ignored.
I can do this all day. A tank can listen as much as a bard can talk, which is no mean feat.
Yes, but on the other hand, yes. Tanks may not feel strongly about every subject, or they might feel uncomfortable sharing their take. This can lead to a social chameleon effect where they agree by default with whomever they’re listening to, seeming to change their opinion from one moment to the next.
Universal doormat. A tank’s game is all armor, no attack. They have a hard time standing up for themselves and others. This can make it easy for less empathetic people to walk all over them, sometimes repeatedly. It can also lead to feelings of betrayal from friends who expect the tank to defend them.
Healers rarely start or carry conversations. They play a supporting role, waiting for the moment when they can have the greatest impact with the fewest words. This might be a quick joke that relieves tension in the room, a fact that makes the discussion more interesting and grounded, or a pointed question that changes the direction or dynamic of the entire conversation.
Dissenting opinion. Of all the classes, healers are the least likely to give in to social pressure. They’ll stick to their guns even when surrounded by people who disagree with them.
Special interest. Healers are extremely well-versed in topics that are close to their hearts. Get them talking about one of those topics and they can play the role of a highly educational bard.
Don’t roll your eyes. Healers are generally not the “cool kids” in a group, and not everyone appreciates their jabs and jokes. Extraordinarily uptight, solemn, or judgmental people may be bothered by their presence.
Chirp chirp. A group of healers without a shared special interest is called an “awkward silence.” Healers thrive on structure, and outside of well-understood formulas (like job interviews and business presentations), they depend on others to provide it. They’re at their best when the conversation doesn’t need them—when they can choose when to speak and what to say. Otherwise, they may find themselves grasping uncomfortably for ways to keep the conversation going.
Finally, a couple classes that aren’t as common but are still worth describing.
Spellcaster. Sometimes described as having a “reality distortion field,” spellcasters are dangerously charismatic. They convert listeners to followers with ease, even when what they say contradicts the evidence of their audience’s eyes and ears. Spellcasters can be very successful salespeople, actors, flirts, politicians, motivational speakers, or (all too often) grifters.
Pyro. Pyros want every conversation to be about them. Specifically, they want it to be about how hard their life is. To be clear, these aren’t people who are in poor mental health, going through hard times, or calling out genuine problems. On the contrary, they’re doing fine; they just haven’t learned how to get attention without asking others to pity them. If they don’t get enough “there, theres” from the rest of the group, they may resort to scorched-earth tactics such as complaining that nobody likes them and accusing people of being selfish.
I’m a healer but I’ve been working on my tank skills. The D&D terminology for this is “multiclassing.” Deep down I know I’ll never be a fighter—the closest I get is “overcaffeinated healer.” And that’s okay, it just means that occasionally I’m going to be stuck with another healer or tank and there’s gonna be a lot of dead air. It’s not reasonable to expect that someday I’ll wake up with the ability to spin memorable conversations out of nothing. The best I can do is emphasize my strengths and manage my weaknesses.
Understand, none of this is “because I’m a healer.” Everyone can do different things. There are no hard boundaries around these classes. Can a tank multiclass as a bard? Hey, maybe. Can’t say I’ve ever seen it happen. But then, none of us are naive enough to go around trying to stuff every single human into four or six or sixteen rigid categories, right? The purpose of conversational classes and the Enneagram and love languages and zodiac signs is to overlay a semitransparent grid on the human experience so we can measure, compare, and consider ourselves in new ways. Part of the fun is watching people break out of their boxes.
You might have a few questions at this point. What’s the ideal group composition under this typology? If you’re a fighter, is it okay to date a tank? How can you deal with a pyro who keeps killing the mood at book club?
In answer to the first two, please toss this whole post in the trash. Talk to people who you find interesting and who find you interesting. It doesn’t have to be hard.
As for the last one I have no idea. If you figure it out, do get in touch.