The Politics of Conversation

meeting tells
Four years ago I read and reviewed Keith Johnstone’s book Impro, in which he explains how pervasive dominance and submission behaviours are in human interactions. He describes an example of physical dominance and submission (status displays) in our encounters with strangers:

Imagine that two strangers are approaching each other along an empty street. It’s straight, hundreds of yards long and with wide pavements. Both strangers are walking at an even pace, and at some point one of them will have to move aside in order to pass. You can see this decision being made 100 yards or more before it has to. In my view the two people scan each other for signs of status, and then the lower one moves aside. If they think they’re equal, both move aside. If they both think they’re dominant (or if one isn’t paying attention) they end up doing the sideways dance and muttering apologies. But this doesn’t happen if you meet a frail or half-blind person: You move aside for them. It’s only when you think the other person is challenging that the dance occurs. I remember doing it once with a man in a shop doorway who took me by the forearms and gently moved me out of the way — it still rankles. Old people tend to cling to the highest status they have had, and will deliberately ‘not notice’ others while clinging fiercely to the (often walled) inside of the walkway. A bustling crowd is constantly and unconsciously exchanging status signals and challenges, with the more submissive person stepping aside.

Shortly thereafter I read and reviewed Peter Collett’s The Book of Tells that teaches you to read status displays in body language, and specifically these six displays:

  • Dominant/Threatening-Possessive (DT) signals — “I’m the boss, do what I say or else”
  • Dominant/Relaxed-Confident (DR) signals — “I’m the boss, so I can let my guard down”
  • Dominant/Controlling-Protecting (DC) signals — “I’m the boss, and I make the decisions”
  • Submissive/Deferring-Inviting (SD) signals — “You’re the boss, make your move”
  • Submissive/Anxious-Shy (SA) signals — “You’re the boss, don’t hurt me”
  • Submissive/Helpless (SH) signals — “You’re the boss, what should I do”

The picture above (selected randomly off the net), for example, includes several dominant displays (sitting very straight, turning away, arms raised or extended, sitting slouched back with legs extended, sitting at end of table) and several submissive displays (slouching forward attentively, sitting in middle of long side of table, sitting with legs drawn up beneath chair).

Collett includes, in addition to body, hand, eye and face signals, some examples of spoken signals of dominance and submission:

  • Dominant: talking first, talking most, interrupting, speaking loudly, speaking deeply
  • Submissive: talking breathily, high-pitched speech, ending phrases with upturn in pitch, dropping names, ingratiating speech

In my review of Impro, I lamented: “What disturbs me most is what this bodes for us idealists trying to establish non-hierarchical, leaderless political and economic structures — communities of peers. Are such structures unnatural? Or do we simply need to learn to recognize the pecking order for what it is — a primeval tool for minimizing conflict and deciding who will do the breeding — and what it isn’t — a license to take an unfair share of wealth and power?”

Since then I have been speaking about the importance of Love, Conversation and Community, and specifically the integration of the three: Facilitating non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer conversations among people in community (i.e. with shared passions, shared objectives, or shared problems) who care about each other and their community. Today I asked myself:

Are these status displays, and our apparent unconscious need to make them, interfering with communication, and undermining the achievement of consensus, collaboration and non-hierarchical problem-solving?

Since our bodies are always ‘saying’ much more than our words, even if we monitor and try to extinguish (as facilitators) more obvious dominance behaviours (bullying) and submissive behaviours (wallflowers), there is almost nothing we can do to reduce non-verbal signals. Yes, we can create circles and get rid of tables, but you will still see a ton of such displays, in posture, eye, face, hand signals and tone of voice.

The courses I have taken in facilitation don’t teach you to recognize or try to alleviate such behaviours, perhaps because it would be an impossible task. I know I am prone to slouch back, legs extended, hands on head with elbows out like antlers, a multiple dominance display. It must be very confusing to others when I try consciously to speak in an inviting, questioning, open-minded way while making such an aggressive non-verbal display!

Likewise I have witnessed people speak passionately and articulately about something, but leave the audience unimpressed because their body language betrays a lack of self-confidence in what they’re saying. In particular I have watched a woman speak in a soft voice (raising her voice slightly at the end of each phrase) and be completely ignored and discounted, while a man a few minutes later, speaking in a soft, measured voice, said the same thing and was hailed as brilliant, everyone scribbling down what he said word for word.

So what do you think: Are there things we can do, both as facilitators and as conversationalists, to suppress power displays and displays of submission, so that listeners focus on what is being said, not how it is said or by whom?

Last Saturday I mentioned an article by Andrew Campbell that retrieves and elaborates on a fascinating model by Vincent Kenny on ‘Dead Language’ vs ‘Live Language’ and how power politics in conversation ‘deadens’ the language and dialogue and saps its power, creativity and usefulness. Language in conversation, the article explains, is sometimes wielded as a weapon, to stop thought and creativity and sharing and connection and everything else it is valuable for.

This is a second, more explicit ‘abuse of power’ in conversation. You know how it works: There are amazingly effective conversation-killers that those uncomfortable with change can use to stomp it out in a way that is almost impossible to defend against. “We tried that last year and it was a disaster.” “If we allowed people to do that, we’d have chaos on our hands, costs would soar and productivity would fall.” “We’d need to get the authority to do that from x and for reason y that would be almost impossible to get.” Andrew’s article provides more examples.

This raises a second question: Are there things we can do, both as facilitators and as listeners, to challenge and reject ‘dead language’ that stifles energy, innovation, courage and other collective qualities of a group necessary to bring about change?

I am very good at imagining possibilities (and throwing them out for consideration) and for gently (and not so gently) provoking people to want to change (themselves), prodding them to intend to act. I think these capacities are helpful in conversations in community. Maybe I’m meant to do these things in conversations, rather than being a ‘neutral’ facilitator. But since my imagined possibilities and provocations often produce these hostile dominance displays and ‘dead language’ responses, if I really want my ideas to get traction, I think I need to learn how to deal with thesebehaviours. What’s your experience?

Category: Conversation
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7 Responses to The Politics of Conversation

  1. Liz Strauss says:

    My experience is that it’s careful ground to work with subconscious behaviors. My sense is that they’re “symptoms” rather than the “cause.” Changing the thinking that fuels the behavior is where I would want to go first.

  2. Viv McWaters says:

    Hi Dave – this has long been a passion of mine and something that Anne Pattillo and I tackle in our new facilitation training. My understanding of status from a facilitation perspective is that it’s always dynamic – something we choose to do, not what we are. Status ‘expert’ Simo Routarinne described to me that status between close friends is always in close flux; status becomes an ‘issue’ when there is a large status gap. As a facilitator I have a choice of what do do with status in a group, and if it’s important to keep the communication channels open (and when isn’t it?0 then it’s important to try and equalise the status. That’s usually best done by me (the facilitator) shifting my status to be more equal rather than trying to lower a high status participant. That just never turns out well! The other thing about status (which is counter-intuitive I think and contrary to the common-held belief that body and spoken language needs to be congruent) is that I can use high status spoken language and low status body language to ‘soften’ a demand; or I can use high status body language and low status spoken language to encourage a reticent group to open up.

  3. Jeff Patton says:

    The high status characteristics that Johnstone presents are simply characteristics… Showing teeth, not breaking eye contact, a still head… these are just things we do when we’re feeling powerful. They aren’t symptoms that need to be overcome.because your goal is a non-hierarchy doesn’t mean you should want to suppress these non-rational communication characteristics– instead it seems like a reasonable goal would be to create circumstances where people feel powerful so they can better communicate.A great improv group is one where everyone feels empowered to make decisions. They feel powerful because they know they can do no wrong– every choice will be ‘yes anded’. I think the same would go for great collaborative conversations.

  4. Didi says:

    The absolute best source I have found for this is Al Turtle’s work on Master, Slave and Passive Master relationships. He also has models for dialogical communities, as an alternative to dominance-submission relationships. See

  5. Pearl says:

    funny, I’ve cycled back to this topic myself this month. Am reading Pease. To suppress emotions of dominance or threat would be to quell communication. If there’s a latitude for forgiving gambits for power and negotiating with all being self-aware that these power urges comes and go, maybe the flatter hierarchy longitudinally happens.

  6. Jarrett says:

    Thanks for an excellent post that touches both my past as a theatre director and my present as a greenie city planning consultant.To deal with Johnstone, it’s important to understand what he did in the theatre world. The whole universe of improvisational theatre, most powerfully expressed in TheatreSports, grew out of his work and still uses IMPRO as a bible. He’s still an important part of many actors’ training. I also know people who’ve used his ideas as the basis for a broader self-help agenda. (See for example Patricia Ryan’s work at http://www.improvwisdom.dom.) The book’s ideas wouldn’t work so well, onstage and off, if they weren’t true. So the answer to your question has to be by working through Johnstone rather than trying to go around him. People will be constructive only in environments where their emotional needs are being met. It’s always tempting to assume, as a facilitator, that dominance and submission are problems, but Johnstone’s point is that they’re more than that, they’re building blocks of personalities and self-images. Both dominant and submissive behaviors are expressive of emotional needs — things we don’t talk about but that are everywhere in how we relate to the world. If we attack them too directly we will be attacking who people are, and then they will REALLY shut down!I may have a useful view on this, because as a tall man with a deep voice who can use big words, I fit almost everyone’s stereotype of a dominant figure. It doesn’t matter what my intentions are; that stereotype precedes me, and I have to work with it. Within the first three minutes of a meeting, I can identify people in the room who are going to need to compete with me, but I can also identify people who want to be submissive and are just looking for the right dominant figure to give their power to. (Important tangent: Since I’m usually there as the hired expert, I also sometimes have to say that a particular idea won’t work, so I get to be the bad guy in your scenario. But of course I have a particular authority to say that. Someone who has dealt with the same planning problem in 100 different cities will know that certain ideas really don’t work, and will work as constructively as possible to lead his clients away from those paths. That’s different from, say, your local bureaucrat, who’s never worked anywhere but your own municipal bureaucracy, saying that something doesn’t work. In his case, he may be right, but he may also be saying “we’ve never done it that way here before … it sounds like too much work … I might have to learn to think again …”)So I’ve learned to listen, to create the space for people to express ideas. And I’ve profited from some life-exercises that involve working from the submissive point of view, regardless of my image. I do my best to notice if something important is being expressed in a submissive way. Now and then I try to practice really intense kinds of listening. But that doesn’t make me any less dominant. Remember Bill Clinton? In person, he was famous for what some wag called “aerobic listening,” the ability to convince you that for seven seconds, you were his entire universe. But nobody would call him submissive. On the contrary, it was a dance he did that led people to submit to him.I love Johnstone because he’s worked in the rather leftist and idealistic world of theatre, and yet, as you saw, his message about how people work can sound like the sort of cynicism that usually belongs to the political right. So I admire you for taking up his challenge, and wish you the best of luck in finding your own way to live that contradiction.

  7. Jon Husband says:

    Take a look at that old 70’s stuff … Transactional Analysis.There are, in my opinion, interesting issues therein to explore for the dynamics of interaction in hierarchy and the dynamics interaction in networks.

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