Don’t Take Your Turn; Wait for your Turn – On Listening and Empathy in a constantly interrupting era

Is there anything harder than having a genuine conversation, whether one-to-one, or in a group?

Years ago (my apology; I now forget which person I heard this from. Maybe Philip Yancey, but no guarantee about that), I heard a definition of a conversation. Here it is:

The first person speaks while the second person listens.
Then, the second person speaks, while the first person listens.
This is called turn-taking.

The speaking part is not all that hard. It is the listening part, and the turn-taking (taking turns) parts, that are so hard.

What usually happens is that while the first person is speaking, the second person is thinking “I can’t wait to say this.” In other words, the second person is not listening; the second person is thinking about what he/she wants and intends to say. Then this process is repeated over and over again during the not-so-very-genuine conversation.

In other words, too often, people take turns speaking, but they don’t take turns listening.listen

Yes, I did think of this with the abundance of interruptions in the midst of political debates over the last two weeks. But I also thought of it when I read Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg. In his book, he describes some thorough research on successful teams conducted by Google, with great insight on successful team meetings. (And, to state it simply, a team meeting is basically a group conversation). Here are a few excerpts from his book:

On the best teams leaders encouraged people to speak up; teammates felt like they could expose their vulnerabilities to one another; people said they could suggest ideas without fear of retribution; the culture discouraged people from making harsh judgments. …“We call it ‘psychological safety.’ …“a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. …a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect; people are comfortable being themselves. 

There were two behaviors that all the good teams shared. First, all the members of the good teams spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking. …“As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined. The conversations didn’t need to be equal every minute, but in aggregate, they had to balance out. …Second, the good teams tested as having “high average social sensitivity” — the groups were skilled at intuiting how members felt based on their tone of voice, how people held themselves, and the expressions on their faces.

The good teams also contained more women.

(“More women” — there may be a connection between this and the idea of better listening and turn-taking).

If you read books on leadership, empathy and listening loom large. I think these two traits are connected. A good listener both develops more empathy, and is perceived as having more empathy.

So, the next time someone is speaking, I have a suggestion – listen, and wait until it is your turn to speak. Don’t take your turn; wait for your turn.

Just a thought…

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