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The question to ask.

You know someone who grabs the conversational ball and runs with it every time you get together, don’t you? Maybe it’s a friend, or a family member, maybe a colleague.

You two get together over lunch, at a party, or even on the phone. And before much talk-time passes, you know exactly what has happened in their life, and how they feel about it, and what they plan to do about it. And on and on and on.

Now, this person might be interesting, intelligent, even insightful. And yet … you walk away from that interaction feeling vaguely (or maybe very) unsatisfied. It feels like something was missing in the conversation.

That something was you, wasn’t it?

We learned as kids, most of us, to take turns when we played. Moms and dads and teachers were always on us. “Let your little brother go down the slide now.” “Wait for your turn at bat.” “Yes, you have to share your favorite doll/race car/crayons.”

Here’s the thing. That same turn-taking happens now, or it should anyway, as we adults engage in the activity of conversation. And it’s clear that some people haven’t quite absorbed that childhood lesson.

Over-talking, monologuing, monopolizing the conversation … it’s common. And it’s especially a problem when it comes to business.

Conversational turn-taking is a system.

And like any system, it has distinct elements that can be isolated and studied. That’s exactly what happened with the CANDOR Corpus, a gigantic research project based on hours and hours of conversations. Why “CANDOR?” It stands for Conversation: A Naturalistic Dataset of Online Recordings.

The idea was to find out what makes for good conversation. They paired people up for a video chat without any direction about the topic. Afterwards, trained observers parsed the videos, and the conversationalists themselves were asked to rate the experience and their partner.

You won’t be surprised to hear that more dynamic speakers got higher ratings. They varied their volume, changed their tone, nodded more frequently, and used more facial expression. In terms of content, they brought up surprising subjects now and again.

Also, participants rated as good conversationalists gave their partners a chance to talk too.

Here’s how the turn-taking system works.

The CANDOR researchers looked at three aspects of taking turns in conversation, as Science Advances described them:

  • Turn exchange—the way people manage to pass the floor back and forth in an orderly and efficient manner.
  • Turn duration—how long speakers talk before they turn over the floor.
  • Backchannel feedback—the active engagement that listeners display while speakers are talking, such as the use of nods or short utterances—“mhm,” “yeah,” and “exactly”—to convey understanding and encouragement.

Makes sense, right? We enjoy talking with someone who gives us a chance to speak sometimes, who doesn’t yammer forever before we get a chance, and who gives us some signal that they’re actually listening to what we say.

It’s not complicated.

And yet, I hear from professionals who have trouble—especially in sales conversations.

They told their potential client all about the wonderful service they offer, how skilled they are at their work, and the many people they’ve served in the past. They just don’t understand why the person said “No” or simply ghosted them.

We can explain that, can’t we?

What with all that important information they felt they had to get across now or they might never get another chance, they neglected turn-taking. When the pressure is on, when we feel we must make a good impression, or when we’re super excited about the topic at hand, it’s really easy to run off at the mouth.

And when we do, we leave the other person feeling neglected or even disrespected. And not eager for another conversation with us.

Are you starting to think about some recent conversations of your own? How often you yielded the floor? How long you blathered about your own experience before you did? How actively you indicated your interest in what the other person was saying, as opposed to just waiting for the noise to stop?

You’re not alone.

I intentionally work at turn-taking, thanks to a friend who told me years ago when I was in the midst of some young-lonely-woman-drama, that I had a tendency to say more about it than anybody not named Catherine wanted to hear. Okay, she was a little bit gentler than that, but I got the message. I’m very conscious of taking turns in conversation.

And yet, I still sometimes pull myself up short, realizing that it’s past time to stop talking and start listening. Especially now, in the midst of my grown-up-woman-with-a-husband-in-chemo-drama. (Somehow it seems there’s always drama, doesn’t it?)

I have a lot to talk about. My friends are concerned about us; they’re eager to know what’s happening and how to help. Still, are they going to keep calling if all I do is carry on about the challenges we face? I don’t think so. And I want to know what’s going on in their world too. It’s important for me to take turns.

Here’s my best advice for polishing your turn-taking skill.

Use tag questions liberally. As the name implies, those are questions we tag onto the end of a sentence, or sometimes a paragraph. “Isn’t it?” “Did you?” “Haven’t we?”

The Grammarist says tag questions can “express uncertainty, check listener comprehension, or sharpen an affirmative statement. They also help listeners engage more actively with the speaker’s message. The purpose of question tags is to facilitate communication.”

I say, “Communication is always two-way.” And tag questions help us create meaningful two-way communication.

When you hear yourself saying more than really needed to be said just now …                 When you notice that your conversational partner is becoming less engaged …                  When you realize it’s time to take turns already                  That’s the time to drop in a tag question.

And don’t just wait for a nod or a grimace or a smile in response. Give them a chance to answer your question. It’s their turn.

A client acknowledged not long ago that this is a challenge for her. How, she wondered, do I hand over the conversational ball without sounding phony or forced?

Easy enough. The words she’s looking for when she’s not sure how to open the floor for the other person are: “And you?”

Seriously. Wrap up your point and finish with, “And you?” and you have the makings of a real, two-way, turn-taking conversation.

At least that’s what I think. And you?