Imagine a mother holding and gazing at her baby, perhaps pursing her lips to make a kissing motion. At that, her baby’s lips move inward. Mother then widens her mouth and lips into a slight smile, to which baby responds by relaxing his or her lips, hinting at a grin. Mother and baby join in a smile. This exchange is a “protoconversation,” a mutual, interactive “dance” that spontaneously connects and engages adults and infants. The earliest communications of humans can be witnessed in these gentle, intimate, affectionate, playful, and rhythmically regulated exchanges.

Protoconversation is communication in its most basic form. When a baby and a caregiver are engaged in a protoconversation, a certain synchronicity occurs. These “conversations” are nonverbal—any words the adult may speak are just sound effects. Gaze, touch, and tone of voice are the key components that allow messages to be relayed through smiles, coos, and melodic “baby talk.” These connections between a parent and baby are short—taking just seconds or even milliseconds—and they end when the two match states of being, most typically a happy one. Microanalysis of protoconversations shows that the start, pauses, and close of these parent-baby conversations create a mutual rhythm, each part harmonizing with the part of the other.

Protoconversations are important because they are all about emotion—two human beings tuning in to each other on an emotional level, which is the foundation for all effective communication. To be a competent conversationalist and communicator, a person must pay attention to three things: (1) the nonverbal, emotional elements of a dialogue—for example, by making use of eye contact that is regular and attuned but not a stare, (2) being sensitive to the movements of the other, and (3)—perhaps the most essential element of conversations and protoconversations—being sensitive to taking turns and being attuned to turn-taking. Each participant in a conversation needs to have a time at being both the initiator and the responder. So, the protoconversation between mother and baby is essentially a very early tutorial that will guide every social interaction and model how to most effectively link with others throughout our lives.

More to consider: Adults and protoconversations . . .

Protoconversations also occur between adults in the form of shared laughter, walking together in rhythm, eye-contact interactions, and miming movements. Adults “dance” in gentle rhythm with each other too.