The Myth of “Natural Flow”

Why we can’t pretend “just talking” will not be oppressive

Originally published for Enlivening Edge Magazine in April 2017

When teaching or facilitating, I often hear, “Can we have a meeting and just talk, without any special format? It feels more natural that way.”

Sure, you can. But I won’t join you. Why? Because I am aware of what we are buying into when we promote “natural” flow.

What is natural flow and what are its effects?

“Natural flow“ is when people speak as they are moved to. It is what happens outside of any agreed-upon format.

The studies cited below show that the absence of intentionality around turn-taking manifests in oppressive patterns. As an example, the below findings are about gender, with gender being just one axis of oppressive patterns in our societies.

  • Males talk for longer and make more frequent contributions than females in formal contexts. (1), (2)
  • Men interrupt more often, especially when the conversation partner is a woman, and even when the woman is in a position of power. (3)

If you want to tell me that in your meetings everyone is equal, consider the possibility that you are biased (as shown in (4)). We all — women and men — hold the preconception that women talk more than men, even when this is not supported by facts.

Seeing that, I am not sure whether to believe or not when someone says their meetings are equal.

See also this anecdote of a (female) researcher who chose to have her own facilitation results measured: “Even when I was explicitly trying, I still failed to have the discussion participants fairly represent the population of the students in my classroom.” (5)

If you are thinking that women just have to be more assertive, this underestimates the complexity of the issue as it can be shown (see (6)) that assertive women — not assertive men — tend to be penalized for that behavior.

Before we talk more about what can be done, let us see what groups are missing out on if they follow “natural flow”:

  • Lack of information: fewer people speaking means less information on the table.
  • Lack of empowerment: a team member who tends to be more silent (for whatever reason) will see their own ideas represented less.
  • Too much focus on process: a group that does not have an agreed-upon process leaves the management of turn-taking to the whole group. Linguistically, turn-taking is often managed with non-verbal markers — like, for instance, the audible sound of breathing in that marks that someone wants to speak or disagrees. Managing turn-taking takes away attention from content.
  • Lack of listening: in natural flow, people tend to prepare their next interruption, or they will be occupied being upset that they have been cut off — all while deep listening could be happening.

What we’re up against: systems

Patterns are sneaky and they are persistent. The old systems are woven into how we act and what we expect — and we all have internalized more than we are aware of.

Habits and multi-layered interactions between internalized bias and subtle power patterns don’t “just” go away.

When acknowledging this reality, how can one insist on “natural flow”? Note how I am using quotes for “natural flow” because I refuse to accept power imbalance as natural. Historically, too many forms of oppression have been justified as “natural”.

We cannot counter oppressive systems by the absence of systems. We need better systems.

One example: A study finds that the decision-making method and ratio between men and women seems to make a difference (7): consensus as a decision-making method is more inclusive for women’s voices in mixed groups compared to majority rule. Implementing better systems does make a difference.

We need more systems that support the kind of equivalence that we want to see, and that don’t rely on potentially biased perceptions of fairness.

Rounds: islands of intentionality

The best option I am aware of is to use rounds. Talking in rounds is used in sociocracy, but it is a format that has been around for a long time. A round means that everyone gets to speak one by one. We know we will hear everyone, and we will reduce the interruptions occurring between speakers. That way, everyone knows when their turn is and can relax and settle in on listening.

Speaking in rounds does not mean that everyone has to make use of their turn. Does passing undermine the use of a round? No.

  • Having a turn and passing is entirely different from not having been asked. Having heard a team member’s voice, getting a feel for where they are, knowing that they are not sitting on something they would like to say — all these bits of information help us stay united as a team.
  • Some groups use natural flow and then periodically ask the silent people for their opinion. Although I highly appreciate the sentiment, I do not enjoy the inherent assumption of power difference. Being perfect equals in a round is different from the more assertive people inviting the introverts’ voices in. Hear everyone from the get-go instead of spending most of your meeting time on the extroverts’ ideas only.
This is about systems (not people) and about our willingness to be intentional about the systems we are a part of.
See more about rounds and many intentional patterns and systems, including examples of what to say, in our new book Many voices, one song.

My intention is not to point fingers. Women are part of keeping the patterns going, as are men. Luckily, islands of intentionality are potent to break these patterns.

A round can even be in a group of two. It means that you listen when the other person is talking, and you wait until they have completed their thought. A round is a way of speaking and a way of listening. You can use rounds with the next person you run into after reading this article!

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References:

  • Janet Holmes. (1992). Women’s Talk in Public Contexts. Discourse and Society. Volume: 3 issue: 2, page(s): 131–150, Issue published: April 1, 1992. (perm link https://doi.org/10.1177/0957926592003002001)
  • Smith-Lovin, Lynn and Brody, Charles (1989), Interruptions in Group Discussions. The effects of gender and group composition. American Sociological Review. Vol 54, 424–435.
  • Kunsman, Peter (2000). Gender, Status and Power in Discourse Behavior of Men and Women. Linguistik online 5 1/00.
  • Cutler, Anne and Scott, Donia R (1990), Speaker sex and perceived apportionment of talk. Applied Psycholinguistics 11 (1990), 253–272
  • Kirkpatrick, Jessica (2014). Stop interrupting me. Gender Conversation Dominance, and Listener Bias. Link: http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/2014/07/stop-interrupting-me-gender.html
  • Rudman, Laurie A and Glick, Peter (2001). Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes and Backlash toward agentive women. Journal of Social Issues. Volume 57, Issue 4, Winter 2001, 743–762.
  • Karpowitz, Christopher F. and Mendelberg, Tali and Shaker, Lee. 2012. Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation. American Political Science Review, Available on CJO doi:10.1017/S0003055412000329