Transforming Talk at Work | February 2015


Dear reader,

One rainy Sunday, when I was no more than eight years old, I recall having a conversation with my parents and two older brothers around the dinner table. Everyone had something to share and we were all talking over each other in bursts and shouts. Not a single one of us was discussing the same topic. Halfway through dinner, there was a brief moment of pause. I couldn’t take it any longer, and found myself declaring (in my most grown-up voice), “This is NOT a conversation – we have to take turns!”

As an adult, I now understand just how crucial turn-taking is to the success of any group endeavor – especially within professional organizations. For example, research published in the journal Sciencefound that groups whose members foster equal individual participation – both in terms of numbers of turns and length of turns – consistently demonstrate higher quality decision-making skills and an increase in overall group performance results. This is significant, folks.

Turn-taking isn’t always easy. Perceptions about hierarchy, expertise, even our conditioned beliefs about gender roles (whether conscious or unconscious) can all contribute to roadblocks that prevent beneficial and equal collaboration.

Better outcomes begin with mindfulness. Are you the one who chronically seizes the spotlight, or do you find yourself constantly losing center stage? Are you the frequent witness of unfortunate interruptions, but don’t know whether or how to intervene? Armed with the knowledge that organizational outcomes hang in the balance – what are you going to do about it?

I’m here to tell you that “conversation domination” is preventable. You can take action. Now that you know what’s at stake, own your responsibility to see that turn-taking prevails and balanced collaboration wins the day.

The next time you’re part of a group conversation, use the following steps to navigate turn-taking and its disruptive counterpart, interruption.


Reverse Engineer: Taking Turns in Conversation

1. To get the turn: Make direct eye contact with the person who has the turn, lean forward, and frown ever so slightly. This non-verbal cue will help signal your desire to interject or adjust the direction of the conversation, once the current speaker is done sharing.
2. To keep the turn: Resist the urge to make eye contact with people who start squirming for their turn to speak before you are finished. If that’s not enough, hold up your hand in the direction of that person and subtly shake your head while you continue talking.
3. To regain the turn if you’ve been interrupted: Hold your ground and interrupt right back. Try saying something quick and clear like, “George, I wasn’t finished,” and continue with your thought.
4. To mitigate ongoing interruption issues: Prepare in advance with a buddy who is willing to interject on your behalf and give the turn back. Women, like it or not, it works best if your buddy is a man. A buddy intervention might sound like this: “Wait, I want to hear what Nicole was saying. Nicole?”
5. To give the turn after you’ve finished: Try passing the turn to someone on your team whose voice is historically under-represented. Or, if you know there are already multiple group members waiting to respond to your ideas, call them out in order like this: “Nicole, I know you’ve been waiting to respond, and then George.”


Digest This: Turn Taking

Who Takes the Floor and Why (Administrative Science Quarterly)
This formal journal article explores the relationships between power, gender and talking time in professional organizations using archival U.S. Senate records and newly collected data. I found the results (especially from the third study) to be quite striking.

You May Soon Know if You’re Hogging the Discussion (The New York Times)
Check out this unique – and techy – way to track attentiveness, measure turn-taking patterns and take the bias out of reporting human conversational behavior. The inventor, Dr. Alex Pentland, calls it electronic “reality mining”!

Speaking While Female (The New York Times)
Favorability ratings increase when men speak up in the workplace, and decrease when women do the same. Power is linked to increased speaking time for men, but not for women. What gives? Read this article to find out, and learn what smart leaders are doing to support the voices of female contributors.


My Treat: The Ultimate Interruption

Let’s journey back to 2009 for one of the most famous interruptionsin recent history. I can’t help but wonder if some of the strength and maturity Taylor Swift has displayed over the last few years developed in response to this calamitous moment.

I’d also like to give kudos to Beyoncé for advocating on Taylor’s behalf (keep watching — it’s 36 seconds into the video).

Taking turns on a grand stage!



Until next time,

Janel Anderson, PhD
Workplace Communication Expert and CEO of Working Conversations

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