2.3 Taking Turns And Sharing The Airtime

One of the key responsibilities of the Conversation Manager role is ‘conducting’ the conversation so that it follows the two-way flow of dialogue. Some conversations fall naturally into turn-taking. Others require a more hands-on approach — consciously inviting yourself or the other person into the conversation to stimulate and regulate turn-taking.

One of the first conversational habits drilled into young people is the concept of turn-taking. Turn One: You speak, I listen. Turn two: I speak. You listen. Overall, both sides get the chance to be heard and understood — a basic principle of effective communication. Unfortunately, by adulthood, these early lessons often seem to have been forgotten.

a. Balancing the roles

One of the most crucial responsibilities of the Conversation Manager role is making sure the conversation conforms to the most fundamental requirement of dialogue — that the participants take turns at being in the Explainer/Teller and Understander roles.

There’s a balancing act involved.

One the one hand, you need to stay in a particular role until the job is done. For example, if you are talking to your solicitor about suing a building contractor for botching a job, then you want to persist in the Explainer/Teller role until you are sure that the lawyer’s understanding on this particular point is clear and concrete. Similarly, when the lawyer is presenting you with his interpretation on a particular point of law, you want to stay in the Understander long enough to be confident that your understanding is clear and complete.

On the other hand, you want to keep the conversation flowing in both directions. Conversations work best when the participants switch roles regularly, so that a state of continuous mutual understanding is created and maintained.

b. Monitoring role switching

In effective dialogue, both parties move in and out of both Explainer/Teller and Understander roles in order to serve the purpose of the conversation.

Let's eavesdrop on a conversation between Jeff and his wife, Martha. They are talking about Jeff's visit to the doctor. Martha does not simply listen. At times, she shares some of her experiences with the same doctor.

For instance, when Jeff is talking a bit vaguely about what troubled him when the doctor was talking about the results of his exam, Martha says, "You know, when he was talking with me about the results of my exam, I had a funny feeling that he wasn't telling me everything."

She moves into the Explainer/Teller role, sharing her experience with Jeff.

When Jeff responds, "That's it! That's what was bothering me!" it's clear that Martha was not hijacking the conversation for her own purpose but sharing her experience as of way of helping Jeff put his finger on what was bothering him. Effective communicators switch easily between the two roles, while still maintaining focus, and pursuing the overall purpose of the conversation.

The time spent by conversational partners in either the Explainer/Teller or the Understander role will differ from conversation to conversation.

Since conversations are not neatly engineered products, they are not fifty-fifty propositions. In the conversation between Jeff and Martha, Jeff spends more time in the Explainer/Teller role and Martha more time in the Understander role. When Martha is talking about a health problem her mother is having, she spends more time in the Explainer/Teller role.

For effective dialogue, both parties need both Explainer/Teller and Understander skills. People who are described, passively, as ‘good listeners’ might actually be poor communicators because they do not actively involve themselves in the conversation, and might well lack the Explainer/Teller skills to engage in true dialogue. In fact, many so-called ‘good listeners’ are not even good at listening, which, as we shall see in the Understander section of the Guide, is an active, rather than a passive, role.

c. Moving into the Explainer/Teller role in order to meet the other person’s needs

Let's say that Zelda is trying to come up with a plan that will enable her both to keep working, and to go to university. She's thirty now and wants to finish her university degree. It will open the doors to further career opportunities.

Her friend, Vincent, is a willing conversational partner, who wants to be of help. This does not mean, however, that he must remain stuck in the Understander role. In fact, if he does nothing but encourage the flow, feedback highlights, and probe a bit, he might not be as helpful as he could be. Vincent can also help by sharing his own experiences and points of view that relate to the issues Zelda is grappling with. When he does this, he moves naturally into the Explainer/Teller role, while still helping her with her agenda.

At one point Zelda says, "My fear is that I'll take on too much. Then I'll end up not doing justice to either my studies, or my work."

Vincent, moving into the Explainer/Teller role but staying with Zelda's agenda, replies, "Like getting the worst of both worlds … I think I had a taste of that. I worked full-time in a supermarket, while I did a full load of courses at university. I could just about do it. But I had no other life. Maybe if I had been enjoying university more, it wouldn’t have seemed so hard. But for me both university and work ended up being drudgery."

Zelda responds, "That's just what I don't want to happen. I'm not so worried about the university part. The courses I'll be taking are the ones I enjoy. But that doesn't mean they won't be work."

Zelda senses that she could benefit form Vincent's experience.

He goes on to say, "A couple of things. I reduced my load at university a bit by choosing a secondary subject I was already familiar with. And I changed jobs. I got a position where I could do some reading — being a security guard. The pay wasn’t quite as good. But I got a lot course reading done that way."

Zelda finds Vincent's account of his own struggle quite helpful. It makes her think of issues she had passed over. For instance, university work, even when enjoyable, is still time consuming. They go on to do some problem solving, with Vincent sharing his experience and points of view, as they seem relevant.

The issue of conversational rights comes up here. Vincent has to decide what he wants to share with Zelda and what he wants to keep to himself. Since the problem revolves around working and going to university at the same time - something that Vincent has done himself - he has some experiences and points of view that might get Zelda thinking. Since these experiences are not that personal, he is willing to share any that would help.

Of course, if Vincent were to get lost in his own experiences and points of view, then he would be, for all practical purposes, hijacking the conversation. The point is that the experiences and points of view shared should be relevant to Zelda's agenda. This is not the time for Vincent to show how clever he is.

d. Moving into the Explainer/Teller role in order to meet your own legitimate needs

Exercising your conversational rights requires both skill and assertiveness. For instance, if the Explainer/Teller is, even inadvertently, hogging the conversation, you have every right to get your legitimate needs met. This means making a conscious move into the Explainer/Teller role.

Here are a couple of examples. Your friend, Nan, has been talking about a problem she’s been having with her boyfriend. You have been helping her work through it more creatively than she has done up to now. However, it seems that she could go on talking about this forever. But you’ve had enough. You're tired. You'd just like to relax for a while, and chat and gossip.

So you say, "I think that we're getting somewhere with this, but to tell you the truth, I need a break. Let's just talk for a while, you know, about anything. My bet is that you'll think of other possibilities by the time we meet tomorrow. We can take it up again then."

You affirm the value of what you were doing together, state your own needs, and give some indication of how the two of you might get back to the other's agenda.

In this next example, you have an issue or agenda that you'd like to discuss, but the Explainer/Teller never gives you an opening to do so. If this is the case, seize an opening for yourself. The situation is this. You're in a car with your parents going to visit an uncle for dinner. Perhaps prompted by the imminent visit, they are talking almost exclusively about what's going on with other relatives. You think that this would be a great time to discuss your plans for moving out of the house and into your own apartment.

And so you test the waters, saying,” I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I thought it would be a good idea for me to start thinking of getting my own place. Not because of you guys but because I think it's time. Well, I've got some plans and I'd like to run them by you."

In this case, you interrupt your parents' small talk with an agenda that is important for you. Interrupting small talk with an agenda that needs discussion is not really a hijack. However, you may want to say something like this: "I know you two are relaxing, but I wonder if it would be all right to talk about my getting my own place." This gives your parents a chance to exercise their conversational rights.

But even if the other person's agenda is important, your agenda has its own importance and you have your rights.

Let's say that your friend is telling you about the success he had in making a big sale with a client. You are with him. But you've just had a run-in with a colleague at work and this is bothering you.

When you see an opening you say, "Well, sad to say, I'm on the other side of the coin. You're on the joy side. I'm on the agony side. Well, maybe not complete agony, but here's what happened between Chester and me at work today. He was …"

Your friend's celebration is important, but so is your need to share your plight. Of course, he still has his conversational rights. But he is your friend.

e. Inviting your conversational partners to engage in dialogue

People often make remarks such as, "She just sat there. She said practically nothing. I'm not sure whether she knows how important this subject is." Such statements don't make conversational sense. While it's admirable to respect other people's style, preferences, and privacy, there's also a limit. Communicators in both Explainer/Teller and Understander roles have the right to ‘invite others in’. That is, into a dialogue. If others don't get involved in dialogue of their own accord, invite them!

Consider this example. Ned is talking to Paulette, his neighbour, about the forthcoming election for governors at the school where they both have children. Ned gives his views. Paulette seems to be totally tuned in. Her nonverbal behaviours indicate that she is not only there but involved. Yet her verbal responses are minimal. Things like "yes" and "sure" and "why not" and "of course not." But not much more. Ned thinks that he has given her a number of openings, but if he has, she hasn't entered. He knows that she has both opinions and the communication skills to express them.

Finally, he says, "I am going on and on here. Paulette, I know you've got a lot of ideas about the school. What goes through your mind as you think about the elections for school governors?"

He invites her in. She looks a little flushed but says, "I'm saying to myself how much sense you're making. And you're right. I do have lots of thoughts about the school and how it ought to develop. But, to tell you the truth, I'm not sure how much power governors have — at least at this school. They just seem to go along with what the head teacher and chairman say. There’s no real debate. And if that's the case, then what good are the elections?"

The invitation works. The cork is out of the bottle. She shares her point of view. It becomes clear why Paulette didn't want to talk about the board. She doesn't see the board as adding much value. But now that she has stated her opinion, she and Ned can get on with the problem-solving dialogue.

Inviting your conversational partners to dialogue takes two major forms.

The first is inviting others to discuss key areas of your story (SAME), message (MRI), point of view (PRE), or case (CRITIC).

The second is turning the Explainer/Teller role over to your partner.

If there are times when your partner's involvement is particularly important, invite them in if they don't come in spontaneously.

Inviting your conversational partner into your story

Let's say that you're telling a story about a conference you attended. An important part of the background revolves around the conference hotel. You ask your partner whether she has ever been there. She indicates that she has.

Then you say, "Tell me what your experience was like."

She says a little bit about her stay and her opinion of the hotel. Since the location plays a big part in your story, getting your partner's point of view helps set the scene. You can do the same with other parts of your story. For instance, you say, "I tried to get room service for about twenty minutes without any luck. How about you?" This deals with what she did and what happened to her (A and E in the SAME framework).

Inviting your conversational partner to discuss critical parts of your message.

Your message involves background, the decision you or others have made, the reasons for it, the implications for yourself and others, and the connections among all these elements. If any of these is especially critical, invite your conversational partner in. Woody has been talking with his teenage daughters about his decision to take a job in a different city. This means that they will have to change secondary schools and leave their friends. This is a critical part of the message.

Woody says, "I know that there is some pain in this for the two of you. And I'd like to talk about it with you. I see two brave faces, but I'd like to know what's going on inside."

Once given the opportunity, one daughter says, "My friends can't believe I'll be gone next year. Amy actually burst out crying and couldn't even talk to me."

The three of them go on to discuss the pain and then the opportunities of moving. At the end, all are satisfied they got a chance to ‘clear the air’, although this does not miraculously take the pain away. Dad realises that they will probably have to ‘clear the air’ a number of times.

Inviting others to discuss key parts of your point of view

Peter, a career sergeant in the infantry, realises that he has adopted a point of view that is not popular with his peers. It has to do with the role of the infantry, in a world where combat is quite different from what it used to be, when there were ‘real’ wars. He is talking with a Neil, a fellow soldier who has been in the army ten years longer than he has.

He says, "Neil. I know you don't like the idea of the infantry adopting a radically new role in combat, but I'd like to discuss the reasons why I think that it's important to do so. I hope you don't think that I'm looking for ‘change for the sake of change’?"

So Peter signals his desire to have a dialogue, rather than have Neil listen - sullenly - to a recitation of reasons why change is necessary. He goes on to say,

"For instance, I'd like to get your view of the role of the infantry in possible chemical warfare situations. I know you hate the idea, but I also know that you’re very realistic about things like that."

They go on to discuss and debate reasons for a new role for the infantry.

Inviting your conversational partners to discuss critical areas of your case

The ingredients in making a case include necessary background or context, the clear presentation of the case itself, the reasons why it should be adopted, the interests of concerned stakeholders, the time needed to review and digest it, a clear indication of the presenter's own interests, openness to reasonable manoeuvring or compromise, and the connections among all of these. Some of these items may be more important than others and therefore need dialogue to give them shape. If this is true, don't leave the dialogue to chance. Invite your conversational partners in.

For instance, Sissy, a key member of the Centenary Celebration Committee has indicated what she will get "nothing out of it" if the church adopts her approach to the centenary celebration.

But then she catches herself and says to her fellow committee members, "Wait a minute. I probably wouldn't be lobbying for my approach if I personally wouldn't get anything out of it. It would help if we were to explore that a bit."

The move is a good one because she discovers that some are bothered by the fact that “once more" she will "get her own way." The issue is credibility. Her fellow committee members provide her with some feedback but do so in a decent way. This proves to be helpful to Sissy, to the committee, and to the discussion of the centenary programme.

f. Turning the Explainer/Teller role over to your partner

There is very funny scene in a movie starring Bette Midler. She is with a friend, talking endlessly about herself. She catches herself and says, "well, enough about me. Now you. What do you think about me?" this is not exactly what is meant by the turning the explainer/teller role over to your conversational partner.

There are times when it’s appropriate for the Explainer/Teller to ‘hold the mic’ for a longer period. For instance, when telling a relatively short story. Of course, there is nothing wrong with telling even shorter stories through dialogue. There are also times when it’s appropriate for Explainer/Tellers to ‘hand the Explainer/Teller role over’, as it were, to their conversational partners. This may be the case in a special way when the Explainer/Teller has been ‘holding the mic’ for a while.

Tell a story

Niall and Siobhan are members of a local dining club. The idea is to eat at a different restaurant every month, trying a range of cuisines and price ranges. Niall has been caught up in telling the story of a friend's visit to a certain restaurant. His friend didn't think much of it. But then he says, "But this is second-hand information. Do you know anything about it?" Siobhan has actually been to the restaurant and paints a completely different picture. They agree that the restaurant should be checked out once more.

Deliver a message

Tyler is talking with Ida about his decision to sue his dentist for, as he says, ‘malpractice’. He gives his reasons and then gives a superficial account of the implications of his decision. All of this comes out as a ‘package’. But then he says, "What do you think of all of this?" Ida reflects for a moment and then says, "Let's go back to your reasons." She gives a tentative appraisal of one or two of his reasons, asks for clarification of another, and then says, "Well, how does this strike you, Tyler?" Tyler realises that suing is probably not such a hot idea after all and begins to discuss more reasonable ways of handling his complaints.

Share a point of view

Kitty and Alfie are talking about a candidate for the board of the charity they both do voluntary work for. Kitty gives her appraisal. Alfie says, "Well, he sounds pretty good." Kitty counters by saying, "But you've actually worked with him. What's your view?" This is an over-to-you move. It's very helpful because sometimes Alfie is a bit too charitable in discussing others. But in this case, given the clear opportunity to be frank, he paints a picture of someone who probably should not be on the board.

Make a case

Demetrious is making a case with his business partner, Costas, to add a third partner to their business venture. In spelling out his case, he hits most of the CRITIC ingredients.

Then he says, "This is my first go at this. I don't see any major flaws in the argument, but you may have a different angle."

Costas reflects for a while, then says, "Let me first summarise what I've heard." Which he does. Then he says, "Instead of just giving you my reaction to your argument, let me pretend that I'm a consultant with one of the big firms and tell you what I'd say in that position."

In his analysis of the business, Costas presents a counter-argument, the gist of which is that they don't need another ‘chief’, but two or three ‘worker bees’ to move things forward. This leads to a dialogue about just what kind of business they are building.

And so, inviting the other in can either focus on a specific issue, or involve the fuller over-to-you move. The main point is that good communicators, whether in the Explainer/Teller or Understander role, are committed to dialogue.]

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