Three of us sat at a outside café in a charming town on the California coast. I was in my last weeks of a house sit in nearby Sebastopol CA. A breeze blew from the Pacific and the air was fragrant with linden trees in bloom.
I knew Linda well; I’d only met Nancy briefly. Linda knew both of us. It was a common configuration: one person introducing two others to each other.
I’d been looking forward to our gathering. I travel and socialize a lot. I knew Nancy had recently been to my favorite location in Spain. I wanted to hear as fully as possible from her and from Linda, and also share my recent experiences and thoughts.
So after introductions and placing our brunch orders, I said something like, “I’d love to hear what each of you are doing and thinking these days. How about if we take turns in talking?”
Without hesitation, they agreed. For two hours we sat on that patio and talked, with plenty of give and take and laughter—each of us making sure the others got a full listening-to. We were reluctant to part, so we left a large tip and walked to another location in town for local buffalo milk ice cream. (Oy. It’s very rich.)
Finally, obligations called Nancy; she left us. Linda and I got into Linda’s car to drive to see an elk reserve.
“Thank you!” Linda said, as she started to drive.
“For what?” I was puzzled.
“For suggesting that we each take turns in conversation. I’ve never seen that done. It was great.”
“Oh, yes. Conversational equity is really important to me. I have a hard time enjoying myself in a group if there isn’t space for me and others to talk, ” I told her. “And thank you for acknowledging my intervention. It takes a bit of courage to do that in a social situation.”
Conversational equity means roughly equal time and attention for each person in a social situation to talk or share of themselves. Maintaining conversational equity in a group or even with just two people is good manners. Conversational equity is the issue that using a “talking stick” addresses, where only the person who has the stick is to speak, and the stick is passed around the circle. It’s what group therapists usually make sure happens in a group. It’s what we did in our women’s consciousness-raising groups in the 60s and 70s.
Conversational dominance is the opposite of conversational equity. Conversational dominance is tedious, disappointing, and dis-empowering. And, based on Linda’s and my experiences, a fair number people we’ve each encountered have no sense of the give-and-take, the shared air time, that allows everyone to leave a gathering with a sense of satisfaction about the interactions.
Have you experienced situations where one or two people deliver non-stop talk about what’s of interest to them, their histories, stories, politics and philosophies, encounters with fame, or jokes? Have you felt left out of the repartee in a group…for hours? And haven’t you either wanted to walk away, or made a few valiant attempts to interject yourself into the conversation, or bring in others? To little avail?
I’ll bet you have.
“Yeah, it takes courage for me to raise the issue of conversational equity in a social situation,” I told Linda. “There are two things that make me hesitate to request to take turns in talking. One is that I’ve been shot down for that: I’ve been subtly accused of being controlling, for instance, when I suggested such at a family reunion, and someone dismissed my request with, ‘Oh, I think it’s better if we’re spontaneous.’
“The second thing that makes me reluctant to raise the issue is that I know in some situations—not often, but certainly in some—I’ve been a conversation dominator. I’m reluctant to preach what I don’t practice.”
“We’ve all done that,” Linda said, generously.
So, dear reader, does the issue of conversational equity in social situations resonate with you?
Do you have any good lines that have worked to make space for everyone in a group to participate satisfyingly in a conversation—lines that don’t disrespect or embarrass anyone, even the conversation dominator? I’m not interested in shaming anyone.
Here’s one line I saw used effectively at a party: “If you don’t mind, I’d like to change the subject. I’d like to talk about….”
If you have other suggestions, I invite you to go to the Contact page in this website and write them to me. I may to do another blog post on conversational equity. It’s important to me to learn better how to gracefully ensure that we all get to hear all the voices at a table. Do you agree?