Conversation and Conformity Orientations

The amount, breadth, and depth of conversation between family members varies from family to family. Additionally, some families encourage self-exploration and freedom, while others expect family unity and control. This variation can be better understood by examining two key factors that influence family communication: conversation orientation and conformity orientation.Ascan F. Koerner and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, “Toward a Theory of Family Communication,” Communication Theory 12, no. 1 (2002): 85–89. A given family can be higher or lower on either dimension, and how a family rates on each of these dimensions can be used to determine a family type.

To determine conversation orientation, we determine to what degree a family encourages members to interact and communicate (converse) about various topics. Members within a family with a high conversation orientation communicate with each other freely and frequently about activities, thoughts, and feelings. This unrestricted communication style leads to all members, including children, participating in family decisions. Parents in high-conversation-orientation families believe that communicating with their children openly and frequently leads to a more rewarding family life and helps to educate and socialize children, preparing them for interactions outside the family. Members of a family with a low conversation orientation do not interact with each other as often, and topics of conversation are more restricted, as some thoughts are considered private. For example, not everyone’s input may be sought for decisions that affect everyone in the family, and open and frequent communication is not deemed important for family functioning or for a child’s socialization.

Conformity orientation is determined by the degree to which a family communication climate encourages conformity and agreement regarding beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors.Ascan F. Koerner and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, “Toward a Theory of Family Communication,” Communication Theory 12, no. 1 (2002): 85–89. A family with a high conformity orientation fosters a climate of uniformity, and parents decide guidelines for what to conform to. Children are expected to be obedient, and conflict is often avoided to protect family harmony. This more traditional family model stresses interdependence among family members, which means space, money, and time are shared among immediate family, and family relationships take precedent over those outside the family. A family with alow conformity orientation encourages diversity of beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors and assertion of individuality. Relationships outside the family are seen as important parts of growth and socialization, as they teach lessons about and build confidence for independence. Members of these families also value personal time and space.

“Getting Real”

Family Therapists

Family therapists provide counseling to parents, children, romantic partners, and other members of family units.Career Cruising, “Marriage and Family Therapist,” Career Cruising: Explore Careers, accessed October 18, 2011, People may seek out a family therapist to deal with difficult past experiences or current problems such as family conflict, emotional processing related to grief or trauma, marriage/relationship stresses, children’s behavioral concerns, and so on. Family therapists are trained to assess the systems of interaction within a family through counseling sessions that may be one-on-one or with other family members present. The therapist then evaluates how a family’s patterns are affecting the individuals within the family. Whether through social services or private practice, family therapy is usually short term. Once the assessment and evaluation is complete, goals are established and sessions are scheduled to track the progress toward completion. The demand for family therapists remains strong, as people’s lives grow more complex, careers take people away from support networks such as family and friends, and economic hardships affect interpersonal relationships. Family therapists usually have bachelor’s and master’s degrees and must obtain a license to practice in their state. More information about family and marriage therapists can be found through their professional organization, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, at

  1. List some issues within a family that you think should be addressed through formal therapy. List some issues within a family that you think should be addressed directly with/by family members. What is the line that distinguishes between these two levels?
  2. Based on what you’ve read in this book so far, what communication skills do you think would be most beneficial for a family therapist to possess and why?

Determining where your family falls on the conversation and conformity dimensions is more instructive when you know the family types that result, which are consensual, pluralistic, protective, and laissez-faire (see Figure 7.2 "Family Types Based on Conflict and Conformity Orientations").Ascan F. Koerner and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, “Toward a Theory of Family Communication,” Communication Theory 12, no. 1 (2002): 87. A consensual family is high in both conversation and conformity orientations, and they encourage open communication but also want to maintain the hierarchy within the family that puts parents above children. This creates some tension between a desire for both openness and control. Parents may reconcile this tension by hearing their children’s opinions, making the ultimate decision themselves, and then explaining why they made the decision they did. A pluralistic family is high in conversation orientation and low in conformity. Open discussion is encouraged for all family members, and parents do not strive to control their children’s or each other’s behaviors or decisions. Instead, they value the life lessons that a family member can learn by spending time with non–family members or engaging in self-exploration. A protective family is low in conversation orientation and high in conformity, expects children to be obedient to parents, and does not value open communication. Parents make the ultimate decisions and may or may not feel the need to share their reasoning with their children. If a child questions a decision, a parent may simply respond with “Because I said so.” Alaissez-faire family is low in conversation and conformity orientations, has infrequent and/or short interactions, and doesn’t discuss many topics. Remember that pluralistic families also have a low conformity orientation, which means they encourage children to make their own decisions in order to promote personal exploration and growth. Laissez-faire families are different in that parents don’t have an investment in their children’s decision making, and in general, members in this type of family are “emotionally divorced” from each other.Ascan F. Koerner and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, “Toward a Theory of Family Communication,” Communication Theory 12, no. 1 (2002): 87.

Figure 7.2 Family Types Based on Conflict and Conformity Orientations


  • There are many ways to define a family.
    • Structural definitions focus on form of families and have narrow criteria for membership.
    • Task-orientation definitions focus on behaviors like financial and emotional support.
    • Transactional definitions focus on the creation of subjective feelings of home, group identity, and a shared history and future.
  • Family rituals include patterned interactions like a nightly dinner or bedtime ritual, family traditions like birthdays and vacations, and family celebrations like holidays and weddings.
  • Conversation and conformity orientations play a role in the creation of family climates.
    • Conversation orientation refers to the degree to which family members interact and communicate about various topics.
    • Conformity orientation refers to the degree to which a family expects uniformity of beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors.
    • Conversation and conformity orientations intersect to create the following family climates: consensual, pluralistic, protective, and laissez-faire.


  1. Of the three types of definitions for families (structural, task-orientation, or transactional), which is most important to you and why?
  2. Identify and describe a ritual you have experienced for each of the following: patterned family interaction, family tradition, and family celebration. How did each of those come to be a ritual in your family?
  3. Think of your own family and identify where you would fall on the conversation and conformity orientations. Provide at least one piece of evidence to support your decision.

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