A simple act of talking

Navigating the complicated mess known as communication

Matt Fannin, Product designer and developer

How many times have you mentally prepared for a meeting feeling quite sure how it’s about to run, only to get 10 words in and realise it’s spiralling away in a different direction? Some time later you find yourself with absolutely no idea what just happened or why…

About a year ago I made the conscious decision to speak in group situations more often. You might wonder why someone would specifically go out of their way to speak for the sake of speaking.

Some quick background:

I’m someone who isn’t naturally forthcoming with information. The reason is less about comfort, and more to do with a having a reserved temperament — I naturally prefer listening over talking. If you ask, I’ll happily share my opinion. Otherwise I’ll tend to think a lot of things but not talk about them.

At Flux, we work in small multidisciplinary development teams. As a Designer at Flux, we spend some time in those development teams, but we also work together as a Design team. Both expressed that they valued my input, and some feedback suggested it might be good if I could do this more in different parts of the business. I wanted to see what would happen if I put my naturally reserved tendencies to the side, and went out of my way to share more thinking. Doing this over the last year, I noticed a few things about conversation dynamics that are interesting to me, and who knows — might just be useful to someone else!

Talking over people is excruciating

One of the first things I noticed was how aware I became of my own voice.

As someone who is generally easy to talk over, one of the first things was figuring out how to fit more of my thoughts into a conversation naturally. I’d say that knowing when to speak, when to stop, and when to persist are some of the harder things to get right (I’m still working on these). I found the more I contributed to a conversation, the harder it was to keep aware of what was going on around me. In particular it was much easier to miss others who were struggling to contribute something. When I find myself talking over someone now, I’m acutely aware of the situation — it’s like stepping on a nail and proceeding to walk even though it’s hit the bone. The more I talked, the more I had to make sure I was pausing to check what others were saying.

How you treat others in a conversation is noticed by everyone, and if those people don’t know you well, they can use those experiences with you to make assumptions about your personality. This was hard, because I often felt as if I was building a skewed impression of myself I didn’t really relate to.

Different perspectives matter

There’s an idea that the first speaker sets the tone of a conversation, and I’ve noticed it’s frequently the known speakers who get conversations started. When we all pile into a room together, we expect someone is going to set an agenda, and without conscious intellectual oversight there can often seem something primal about the way the discussion unfolds. Healthy group culture and expert facilitation can help a good deal, but to me it seems clear a lot happens at the very beginning.

Everyone feels differently about speaking first. Some feel good about it. Others would rather be surrounded by wildfire facing an ambush of hungry wolves with a toothpick than even consider the idea.

We strive to move together. But where are we going?

We read a lot into the first few words of a conversation. We listen for inflection, we notice any sense of urgency or stress, and we pick up on any personal feelings towards the topic at hand. Unless someone feels comfortable challenging the implied direction, people tend to notice these cues and adapt their behaviour to suit. Instinctively we want to make the meeting run as smoothly as possible — even if it directly challenges our own thinking. It’s that feeling after a couple of minutes when you think to yourself, “Oh right, so that’s how this meeting is going”, before doing absolutely nothing about it.

Those initial few words can have a powerful effect on the whole conversation — this is what people are talking about when they say the first speaker sets the tone. If it’s usually the same person starting, it can often mean the same ideas are driving the work forward. We may even never hear from particular people at all! How the heck can we have any effect on the conversation when someone else is always setting the tone?

Here’s a couple of things I’ve found to help:

  1. Sometimes when people bring very different perspectives to a conversation, things can get a bit out of hand, with everyone competing to make their point. Listen. Pick a moment. Say one well formed idea. This will be more powerful than any amount of talking over anyone can be, because the tonal change will capture the attention of the room.
  2. Say that thing you know everyone is thinking! This relieves tension with people who thought they were the only one thinking it, and frees everyone up to feel more comfortable contributing to an open discussion.

Both of these can swing the mood and help keep everyone focused. The whole reason you’re there in the first place is because your perspective matters — seize the opportunity to make it heard.

Look out for another angle.

You talking more means others talking less

Writing it down, I’ve noticed what I’m about to say is a super obvious rule about time, but the longer you spend speaking, the less opportunity others have to speak. There’s simply less time left for them to do it.

I noticed the more I spoke, the more other people listened. For some reason, speaking (and appearing comfortable doing so), has the unfortunate side effect where people think you actually know what you’re talking about. It made me look like a natural speaker — I noticed this especially with those new to working with me.

The original goal was to contribute more of my own thinking. That meant being confident to contribute even if I wasn’t sure. If I wasn’t sure about something, but shared it with confidence, few people would ask questions or pick holes in my argument. This last observation was particularly frightening for me, since I strongly believe we need as many people asking as many questions about as many things as possible.

Over time, I began to worry about what I was turning into. Was I still the same person? Or was all this behaviour reprogramming my brain, turning me into a raging monster who talks over everyone — putting an end to all other free and independent thought?

No one wants to work in here.

Right, so I’ve been known to exaggerate, but my view is that the more you speak, the more responsibility you have for encouraging others to challenge your ideas. Sometimes I’ve noticed this means intentionally going out of my way to state any uncertainties I have. The key to it is having the self respect to make sure that this isn’t self-deprecating, as I’ve seen people put themselves down while attempting to solve this problem. Instead it’s saying, “I’m confident to put forward my view, but I want you to challenge it”. This way it’s illustrating we’re not afraid of failure, and allowing others the confidence to build on an idea.

These perspectives are definitely not an exhaustive list, rather some of the main things I’ve remembered reflecting on this experiment. You might have other ones — please drop them below!