By Jasper Ozbirn
Some people talk a lot. Others talk very little. You don’t have to ask someone that talks a lot a question in order to get them to talk. In fact, for some, all you have to do is walk within earshot. What many talkers don’t seem to know is that non-talkers can talk too! But they don’t talk when the talkers are taking up all of the space in the conversation. This article discusses what I learned by observing the conversations of the four dinner parties I attended over the Thanksgiving holiday. Although dinner parties are certainly distinct from mediation, I am confident that what I noted at these parties will help me communicate more effectively in mediation and in general.
On Saturday, my family and I invited friends over for dinner. There were 10 people, and many of us had not seen each other for quite some time. As usual, the food was great, the wine was great, and the conversation was fluid. When I was listening to the conversation, I had the following realization—there are at least three different modes of conversation, and as a mediator, I must pay close attention to which category the people I am conversing with fall into. This article discusses and demonstrates the three types of conversationalist I observed.
First, there are “question-askers.” This type can be very outgoing and may appear to talk as much as anyone else or more. But if you listen close, you will see that they aren’t “talking” but are asking question after question after question. They are creating space for others to talk. I have found that if I am not careful when talking to a question-asker, I walk away from the conversation realizing I have no idea what they are up to and I just talked about myself for an hour.
A good friend of mine, I’ll call him Joe, falls into this category. Every once in a while we meet for beers and to catch up on what the other person has been up to. Interestingly, I often hear the same complaint from Joe about some of our mutual friends—they only talk about themselves. “Of course they do,” I want to tell him, “you keep asking them questions.” In a normal conversation with Joe, whenever there is a space or silence in a conversation, he fills it in with a question. In order for me to have any sort of meaningful conversation with him, I have to remember to ask him questions—lots of them—to create space for him to tell me about himself by focusing the conversation on him instead of me.
Second, there are “quiet people.” This group is often thought to be shy and introverted, although that is not necessarily the case. I have found that if you ask them questions they are often very willing to talk about themselves. A good friend of mine in high-school fell into this category. She was considered “snobby” by many of her peers because she didn’t join in conversations and had a small, select group of friends. I ended up talking to her about this on multiple occasions and she told me the reason she didn’t talk was that she didn’t feel like she could “keep up.” In other words, by the time she thought of something to add to the conversation, the conversation had moved on and she was then trying to think of something to say that pertained to the new topic. The people that thought she was snobby because she didn’t talk had simply never given her the space she needed to talk. When given space, she had just as much to say as anyone else.
The third personality is the “story-teller.” This person has no trouble talking about him or herself and taking up all the space in the conversation they are given. If you tell them about your recent trip to Spain, they will say something like, “That’s nothing. When I was in Mexico, we . . . .” Some people find this style of communication inappropriate and even offensive. They consider these story-tellers self-absorbed and arrogant. While this may be true some of the time, the mere fact that they turn the conversation to a story about themselves after someone else finishes a story does not in and of itself make them self-centered. Instead, this is how they communicate. They often expect that at the end of their story, someone else will pick it up and tell a story that relates to theirs. The following example occurred during our dinner party.
“Oh look, it’s snowing out. When I lived in the snow, I was so scared to drive, especially on hills. I hated it! I had this great neighbor though who didn’t mind, and he would drive my car down the driveway for me when it was snowing and I would go from there.”
“That’s hilarious,” someone else picks up. “There was this one winter, about ten years ago when we lived higher up the hill, and it must of snowed a foot in one night. The next morning, there were cars all over the road, all driving off into the ditches. Then, the funny thing was, there were all these people that would just get out and leave their cars in the middle of the road! I tried to drive to work, but the road was blocked with cars that people had just left, so I had to take the back way. It took like two hours!”
Then someone else, who has not talked yet, picks it up. “Funny you mention people leaving their cars on the side of the road in the snow, because on the way here this evening there were at least four cars just sitting on the sides of the road. It looked like they’d been there for hours . . . . It happens every winter. They just leave ‘em there, and come and get them when it thaws I guess . . . .”
Then a new person chimes in and shifts the topic slightly. “You know, there aren’t just bad snow drivers, but there’s a whole other side to the spectrum of crazy snow drivers. It’s like they think its sunny and 75 degrees out. I used to leave for work at the ski resort at 5:30 in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes I would get up the hill before the plows had made it to the highways. I’d be going along, maybe 40 to 45 miles an hour, in 6 or 8 inches of snow in the near dark thinking I am doing pretty well, when some guy would blow by me at 60! Like he didn’t have a care in the world about the snow.”
And on it went. What I noticed during this conversation was that only four people said anything, but there were ten people at the table. After the snow conversation ended, a new topic was started by one of those same four.
While this is not necessarily a problem at a dinner party (some people may prefer to be a spectator sometimes), it is a problem in a mediation because the mediator needs to connect with and get information from the parties. How to do this most effectively will of course depend on the person and a lot more than what category of communication they prefer. But this appears to me to be an important aspect. For example, asking a story-teller questions may set them back and make them feel they are being attacked, but telling them a story and inviting them to tell theirs may put them and ease and elicit the same information. Answering the endless questions of a question-asker may make the conversation flow, but it is not likely to move the mediation forward because they will not divulge any personal information until directly asked. Finally, those that appear quiet might open right up once they are given plenty of space to communicate their thoughts.