Polite Conversation

I‘ve been at a conference for the last couple of days, and have spent a significant portion of that time eavesdropping on conversations. Aside from the obvious observations (that most people don’t listen, and that men do most of the talking and interrupting in mixed company conversations) what most astonished me was the unintended lack of politeness and courtesy that seems to characterize most conversations. It’s not that the participants are rude — it’s just that they seem to lack mutually-understood and mutually-respected protocols to govern conversation in a civilized manner. This, in a world in which we are beleaguered by rules in almost everything else we do, seems remarkable to me.

So I did a bit of research to see whether I could find some protocols, some rules of behaviour, that work effectively regardless of the number, gender or conversational style of the participants. The longest-established protocol is also, it seems, the most misunderstood. This is the protocol of the Talking Stick, which has its roots in aboriginal American culture and in that of some third-world cultures as well. The basic rules of the Talking Stick protocol, from what I can ascertain, are as follows:

  1. The person holding the Talking Stick is the only one who can speak.Others must listen and not interrupt, even to ask clarifying questions. The onus is on the speaker to be clear, brief, and respectful.
  2. Generally the person most respected by the group (the tribal elder, or the person selected by the elder to present the issue to the group) talks first.
  3. The Talking Stick is then passed clockwise as each person finishes, and makes one complete circle of the participants. Participants with nothing to add simply pass the Stick along.
  4. The person who spoke first asks then whether additional discussion is warranted, and if anyone thinks so, the Stick is again passed around the circle.

There have been a number of ‘improvements’ suggested to this process, such as allowing clarifying questions, allowing people to reach for the stick in any order, first-come, first-served, and summarization or ‘voting’ processes, but none of these enhancements has a distinguished history and none in my opinion represents a significant improvement to the basic protocol. Allowing the group to engage in two-person iterative Q&A, or sidebar conversations, would seem to me to abrogate the three duties of clarity, brevity and respectfulness, or at least render them less necessary. In some Talking Stick circles, if you take the stick you must begin your speech by briefly reiterating what the previous speaker said, and only when that synopsis receives a nod from the previous speaker can you begin saying your piece. In some cases this might work brilliantly, but in others it could make the conversation interminably long and repetitive.

It is not clear to what extent the Law of Two Feet applies in Talking Stick circles — where if you find the discussion valueless or frustrating you have the option to leave, without repercussions, and perhaps start another conversation on the same or another subject with those similarly inclined. The alternative would be to assume that if you chose to accept the invitation to join the conversation in the first place, you owe the rest of the group the courtesy of giving them your attention until it is finished. My personal view is that this judgement (whether leaving a conversation you find tedious is discourteous or not) is best left up to the individual.

I have witnessed many ‘moderated’ conversations, where one person decides who will speak next, or where people raise their hands to be next to speak and a first-come, first-served honour system applies, and found them mostly frustrating. But anarchy, where the loudest voice always prevails, seems to me even more so, and also unfair. Where the participants are part of a hierarchy, and rank clearly determines speaking priority, the result is too often not really conversation at all, but rather an information reporting and instruction exercise.

I have witnessed, too, meetings that allow the listeners to use tacit signals to prompt the speaker without interrupting them: Holding up a green card means “I like what you’re saying”, a red card the opposite, and a yellow card signals “I don’t understand what you’re saying”. They tend not to work, I think, because the green encourages unnecessary loquaciousness, the red is rarely used because it would be perceived as rude, and the yellow is rarely used because it might make the listener appear stupid. Electronic equivalents (IMs that the speaker can read on-screen while talking) present the same discouragements, and also are more of a distractions than most speakers can handle on the fly.

One of my favourite conversational formats is the interview/Q&A, where one (or more) persons pose questions and the other(s) restrict themselves to answering them. There is a certain inherent democracy in such conversations — each side gives up certain speaking rights in return for receiving others. Unrehearsed, they require considerable skill and agility to pull off eloquently. Rehearsed, they can be extremely effective at transferring knowledge but they become less conversations than performances.

So my sense, based more on observations of what doesn’t work than what does, would be that the use of a Talking Stick or similar icon might be very helpful, even in two-person conversations (to reduce propensity to interrupt). I’m ambivalent about whether passing the Stick clockwise or allowing anyone to grab it next providing they satisfactorily summarize the last speaker’s message first, would work better — and I suspect it would depend on the subject and the conversational style of the participants. I do like the idea of using a subtle timer to reinforce the importance of clarity and brevity, which seem so absent in most modern conversations that the resulting incoherence is often unintentionally hilarious to the eavesdropper. Beyond that, I’m not partial to any ‘improvements’ to the basic four-rule Talking Stick process described above.

What’s worked for you? Have you tried using such techniques, and when are they effective (and not)? Are there other techniques, newer or older, that work better, and when are they appropriate? And what of telephone and Skype conversations, or those anarchic multi-party IM sessions? Could a ‘virtual Talking Stick’ be introduced to organize such conversations? It should be easy enough for the technology to handle, but has anyone actually tried imposing this kind of discipline on non-face-to-face conversations? And perhaps most important, does practice using these techniques tend to make more polite, respectful and articulate conversations second nature? Or is there some reason I’m missing why interruption and ‘louder voices prevail’ protocols are so prevalent in our conversations, seemingly by default?

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5 Responses to Polite Conversation

  1. Octavio Lima says:

    I was sort of glad to know that interrupting people’s conversations to insert comments, change the topic or simply introduce a new topic is no longer a priviledge of the latin cultures. It seems that this behaviour is permeating all sorts of culture, class and race layers of mainstream society as a means to control and show power. Dogs mark their territoy as we know, like humans tend to mark territory filling up the silence. Does it suggest that the noisier you are the stronger you think you are? Thank you for sharing an idea I myself have been discussing with a few friends.

  2. Tes says:

    You have to have your thumb on the pulse of the group dynamic. You have to know the players and their personalities and their agendas. You have to know when to let someone prattle on and when to cut him off. The prattlers need you to manage them and the more reticent ones need you to draw them out in a way that they are comfortable with. You definitely want to hear from people in a balanced way. You definitely want to hear from everyone, but not too much from anyone. Moderation. It’s a bit of an art.

  3. easywriter says:

    Interesting points are raised here regarding the art of conversation. I enjoyed your piece very much and the previous comments add some extra depth too.

  4. Barbara Park says:

    I experienced the pleasure of a conversation using the talking stick in the context of a sweat lodge on Vancouver Island where I live. In the darkness of the lodge with the aroma of sweet grass we sat in a circle around the hot rocks. The steam from water poured on the rocks filled the tent-like structure with heated moist air. Without seeing eachother we really listened.Another approach to the talking stick methodology might be to utilize yoga’s square breathing model, inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Speak, think, listen, think.My passion is that people be heard at work. My web site talks more about the connection between being heard and one’s health and productivity.

  5. AF says:

    For serious family discussions, we used a carpet or tile sample. The person holding “the floor” spoke, while the rest of us listened. The sample was passed in a circle.

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