September 3, 2020

A More Inclusive Conversation

Josh Little
Co-founder & CEO

Ever had a meeting with someone who just won’t shut up?  Meetings can too easily be monopolized by the most vocal or aggressive personalities and stifle the input of more tentative and delicate personalities to the detriment of the organization.  

We’ve all had these experiences because the offenders exist in every organization–those who either need to be the smartest person in the room, love the sound of their own voice, or just don’t know how to make a concise point.  The problem is that the offenders don’t realize they are doing it.  And if they’ve spent a lifetime ignoring the social cues that would signal them to stop, they probably aren’t going to learn now.

Most articles you read on this subject make suggestions (some conflicting) on how to deal with the situation by doing things like: 

“Play traffic cop”
“Don’t let them get started”
“Invite others to join the discussion”
“Politely interrupt them”
“Don’t interrupt them”
“Break their train of thought”
“Respond inversely”
“Listen with a neutral reaction”

The problem is that these suggestions, while well-intentioned, only blunt the symptoms and don’t fix the underlying problem.  As long as there is air to fill and a timebox to exploit, the offenders will do their thing.  And we will allow them because as it turns out, group conversation is a very complex thing to navigate.

Group Dynamics

If you had to train a computer on how to have a conversation, what things would you teach it?  You would certainly have to teach it the obvious things like language and sentence structure.  You would also need to teach it about more subtle things like questions, sarcasm, and humor.  Then maybe you would teach it about turn-taking and length of response.  And don’t forget the universally observed 200-millisecond gap in between turns that exists across all languages and cultures.  With these things, a computer could start to play ball in a conversation with another person.  But what about a conversation with two other people?  Or a group?

Conversations between multiple people are exponentially more complex to navigate than a conversation between two people.  Researchers at Harvard Business School have called this the “many minds problem.”  They argue that “the addition of more minds fundamentally alters the basic mechanics of the conversation” to the point that they suggest that “group and dyadic (one-on-one) conversations...should be considered categorically different activities.” 

By just adding a third person to a conversation you introduce complexities like determining who speaks next, balancing floor-time, yielding to others, reading the room, lead/follow roles, and weighing the increasing risk/reward of speaking.  

Group conversation is so multi-dimensional, it would be difficult to train a computer to handle it.  However, we’ve been trained our whole lives to easily transition from a one on one conversation to a group conversation.  We do this when someone joins us at the lunch table or encounters two people talking in the hall.  We transition into group conversation with little thought of the difference between the two.

You would think that the airtime in a group conversation would be shared equitably, but that’s not the case.  Because of the differences, group conversations have very different participation rates.  Leigh Thompson reported on Fortune that in a conversation between four people, two of them do 62% of the talking.  In a conversation with six people, three of them do 70% of the talking.  And in a conversation with eight people, the same three people still did 70% of the talking even though there were two more people in the conversation.  The more people you add to a conversation, the more the minority talks.  What’s crazy is that the people doing most of the speaking in these instances didn’t realize that they were talking this much.  They felt the conversation was shared equitably.

Anyone who’s been on the quieter side of a conversation knows that this is not true.

The Quiet Side of the Table

In the shadows of the fluorescent lime-light of the modern conference room lie the valuable thoughts, opinions, and solutions of the unsung voices of the quiet, indifferent, and disenfranchised.  The noisy side of the table assumes that the quiet side is content or doesn’t have anything to contribute.  This is an incorrect assumption.

The reason that some go quiet while others don’t is related to the increased scarcity of the natural resources of a group conversation–airtime, turn-taking, and feedback.   These resources become more scarce with each person that’s added to the conversation resulting in increased social risk with participation.

All conversations have a timebox.  Even the participants in a dinner conversation with friends have a reasonable sense of when it may end.  At work, most meetings have a start and end time.  As group size increases, airtime becomes more and more scarce.  With more scarce airtime a participant not only has less time to speak but also more time to listen.  We already know that as groups get larger, fewer people do the majority of the talking.  This creates an experience that is less like people talking to each other and more like two or three people talking in front of an audience.  Recent research suggests that this has a “range of psychological effects, such as increased feelings of exclusion, increased mind-wandering, or in some circumstances, more time to critically examine what is being said.”

Since conversations are turn-based, group size increasing also causes more complex turn-taking.  Turn-taking is simple in a one on one conversation–if the other person isn’t speaking, you probably should be.  Because of this, someone engaged in a one on one conversation is in the ‘front seat’ listening intently while building their response during their partners turn.  When a third person is added, a new option emerges–a back seat.  Now each person must decide what role they are going to play.  A participant in a group conversation suddenly has the luxury to ask questions like: Am I in the front seat or the back seat?  When is it my turn?  Am I talking enough?  Did what I just said sound stupid?  What do they think of me?

Those questions lead us to a third natural resource–listener feedback.  Cooney et. al., 2020, state that “listeners in a conversation are not just speakers in waiting.  Rather, they are actively involved in providing feedback to speakers about how the conversation is going.”  These are the important cues given through body language like head nods, glances, gazing or verbally with short utterances like ‘yeah’ and ‘uh-huh.’   One might think that feedback from listeners increases proportionally with group size.  It’s actually the opposite.  This happens because of a diffusion in responsibility.  In a one on one conversation, you have the sole responsibility of providing feedback.  In a group conversation that responsibility is spread around allowing the back seat option.  This is why people who are responsive in one on one conversation can seem unresponsive in a group setting.

The increased scarcity and complexity of these natural resources creates a completely different risk profile for a group conversation when compared to its one-on-one counterpart.  Because there are more minds sharing less airtime it increases the pressure and risk of contribution.  A participant must weigh the increasing potential reward against the potential risks.  Because there are more minds to judge, there is more risk that the contribution may leave a poor impression, be misunderstood, or embarrass someone. 

These are the reasons that contribute to there being a quiet side of the table.  It’s not because they don’t have something valuable to contribute or nothing to say.  It’s because group conversation is inherently hard to navigate.  Now mix in the influence of protecting livelihood, maintaining social status, and achieving career aspirations and you have a recipe for restraint.

A Better Conversation

At Volley, we are inspired by the idea of creating better conversation.  With our ‘asynchronous first’ methodology, we are enabling four things that reduce the downsides of synchronous group conversation. 

1. Everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute.  With Volley, there is no need to wait for the right time to get a word in edgewise.  That opportunity is lying right beneath your thumb in a nice big record button.  No longer can the most verbal or aggressive monopolize the conversation.  Everyone has an equal opportunity to hit record which democratizes contribution and in the wake creates what could quite possibly be the most inclusive form of verbal communication.  

2. Eliminate the timebox.  Asynchronous conversations happen outside of time or place.  No longer do we have the artificial constraint of time creating perverse behavior like small talk, meandering, and filling of time.  Have you ever wondered why meetings seem to magically take the time you give them?  This is Parkinson’s Law at work, which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.  This doesn’t mean that asynchronous conversations will bloat because the act of recording a video of yourself talking has its own healthy pressure for anyone with a little self-awareness.  This means that conversations take the time they need to, no more, no less.

3. Encourage more precise language.  The research shows that any time you can allow at least three seconds before a response is given, the quality of the response dramatically improves.  Because asynchronous conversation allows ‘think-time,’ it naturally enables a better response using more precise language. 

4. Enable 100% focus on the conversation. In synchronous conversation, the turns happen too quickly.  You only have 200 milliseconds to respond before your partner starts to feel awkward.  This is not enough time to assemble a response.  For this reason, in synchronous conversation, we build our response during our partner’s turn, which means we’re not fully listening, but rather thinking about what we’re going to say next.  You’ve probably had a conversation with someone who is terrible at doing this.  Asynchronous conversation not only allows you to focus 100% on listening to the message being delivered (at whatever speed you like), but also focus 100% on speaking your message (more precisely) without the distractions of synchronous group conversation.

By doing these things we feel that we are creating a way to have more inclusive, more precise, and less interruptive conversations to move work forward.  If this sounds exciting to you, download Volley and invite your team today.

Josh Little

4x Founder, Tinkerer, Tenor, Brinemaster. CEO of Volley.

About the Author

Josh Little started his career as a teacher then moved into sales training and education roles at three Fortune 500 companies before making the leap into entrepreneurship. Over the last 15 years, Josh built four successful tech companies (Maestro, Bloomfire, Qzzr, and Volley) that have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people and been able to consult with some of the top brands in the world. He has a firm believe that a great conversation can change your life and with Volley he's making them easier to have anywhere, anytime.

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