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What Is Discourse Management?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 23, 2024
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Discourse management is the ability to direct written or spoken conversation in a specific direction. It refers to how much language occurs, as well as how relevant and cohesive the language is. Although discourse management raises issues of freedom of expression, it is a common tool used in everyday conversation, business and academics.

As a tool, discourse management relies on the principle that language and discourse are inextricably connected. Language provides the direction for any discourse that occurs, with the interpretation of language depending largely on cultural contexts. By understanding culture and gaining control over the language, a person can control how discourse proceeds.

Discourse may be written, such as with letters or email, and it may also be spoken, such as with conversation. In either case, discourse management is useful for preventing or repairing communication breakdowns. For instance, a person might ask another person to clarify what he meant so that confusion doesn't make conversation inefficient or create conflict.

Ultimately, the ability to manage discourse allows a person to exercise some degree of power over the responses of others. This, in turn, can control how people behave. People who want to manage one or more people often have to learn how to control what is said or written in a particular environment. In a very mild form, discourse management might mean phrasing a question to elicit a particular response. In more severe cases, it can mean outright partial or complete censorship.

The ability of discourse management to create power hierarchies and prevent the written or spoken word from taking a specific direction raises some concerns about freedom of expression. In particular, the freedom of speech is called into question. In some nations, laws provide little if any protection against blatant discourse management and censorship. In other nations, laws guaranteeing freedom of speech are present, but might not be enforced in every instance due to cultural or environmental factors. An example is an employee who does not say how upset she is with her boss because she fears retaliation or a schedule or workload that is more difficult.

The act of managing discourse can occur in everyday conversation in private conversation as well as in businesses and academic institutions. For instance, companies might choose to use words with specific connotations during a layoff to make the company's situation seem less desperate and keep morale up. In the classroom, discourse management is necessary to get students to go through learning processes and arrive at the correct answers. In this sense, discourse management is not necessarily bad, because the intent behind it is to build up others or prevent anxiety and chaos.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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