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The importance of ‘swithering’

The importance of ‘swithering’

Decisions, decisions. Few people can make a snap decision without weighing up options. This blog describes how the authors looked further into this as part of the Talking Mats process and discovered it is actually a crucial part of thinking and communicating. A good old Scots word, ‘Swither’ sums it up perfectly. Thank you to Joan Murphy, Norman Alm and Sally Boa members of the Talking Mats Research Network for this fascinating blog.

The Talking Mats Research Network currently includes 47 people from 11 different countries and meets regularly on Zoom. One of its subgroups is looking at how Conversation Analysis can help us to understand how and why Talking Mats works.

The project:

Comparison of the interactions of a man with severe expressive aphasia having two conversations on the same topic – one without Talking Mats and one with Talking Mats. The topic in both cases was how he was managing getting around.

What we found:

  • Without Talking Mats: there were more vocalisations in the conversation, but they were less intelligible and there was more confusion between the thinker and the listener.
  • With Talking Mats: there were more silences but this was an obvious part of the thinker’s response and by examining how he handled and placed the cards we got a clearer sense of his thinking and intellect.

Further analysis:

  • We employed Conversation Analysis techniques to look the session where Talking Mats was used.
  • A significant feature which emerged was that, with Talking Mats, the thinker often hesitated while thinking where to place the card, moving the card back and forth before finally settling in one position.
  • To explain this, we borrowed the Scottish word ‘swither’.  The dictionary definition of swither is ‘to be uncertain as to which course of action to choose’.

Our thoughts / conclusions:

Following discussion, we now feel that swithering, when we move our words or thoughts about in our brain to help us make up our mind, is an important positive feature of conversation. However, a person with a communication disability may find it hard to give a nuanced response and/or we often expect people with a communication difficulty to give a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. It can be seen as a failing if they appear uncertain, whereas swithering should be regarded as a positive and crucial aspect of how we think and communicate.

One of the many reasons why Talking Mats is successful is that it allows people to ‘swither’ by giving them permission to be unsure and gives them access to a more modulated response.

If you are interested in carrying out reseach in Talking Mats or using Talking Mats as part of your research you can read more here or contact us on