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Influence, Power, & Politics

Having Difficulty Getting a Word in Edgewise?

Conversation involves taking turns. The challenge comes from the fact that we don’t follow the same pace in taking turns. Something as seemingly simple as taking turns in talk involves a number of subtle signals, indicating that one person has finished — or is nearly finished — and so another person’s turn may begin. How long each of us waits or pauses between turns is affected by our culture, family patterns, ethnicity, the social context, and other factors. So, is it any wonder that most of us, at times, find it difficult to edge into conversations?

Today, I was speaking with a speech pathologist about the special challenges people with Parkinson’s disease face when conversing. Their voices are often considerably reduced in volume. An effort to join or keep up in conversation can become so difficult and complex that it may seem better to just stop trying — to especially avoid social situations with groups of people or highly animated talkers.

You needn’t suffer from Parkinson’s disease to have problems joining a conversation and occasionally holding the floor. If you’re a woman in a primarily male environment, that can pose challenges, as can conversing with those who consider themselves superior in status or intelligence and therefore entitled to talk more. 

Conversations enable us to convey our thoughts and ideas. That alone is important enough for us to participate. But conversations also are the building blocks of relationships. We signal through speech our status among others, whether we’re interesting people, our level of rapport, and a host of other relational clues that help others determine (usually quite beyond our notice) who we are. In this sense, being able to get into a conversation, hold others’ attention, contribute effectively, and then hand the turn to another person are all important to having good relationships.

If getting a word in edgewise is a problem for you — just when you want to shout, “Will you ever shut up?” or, “Hey, you idiot. It’s my turn!” consider using some of the following phrases to enter or rejoin a conversation. At the right volume, they’ll signal to people that you have something to say. Unless you’ve already been monopolizing the talk, these polite, yet assertive phrases are likely to be heeded by others — perhaps even those who are uninterested in what you say or just too rude to listen.  Select one or two of these phrases to try out this week:

I was just thinking when you said that …

Yes. I agree, but….

You know what….

About what you just said…

Let me add a thought here…

On a related note/subject/topic…

You know, I think that’s true, but…

There’s another way to look at that…

We should also consider…

What you just said just reminded me of something…

Gestures, like slightly raising your hand to show you want to talk, are important. It’s also useful to watch how people around you enter conversations and then adapt those entry cues to fit your particular style.

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Coupled with gestures that gain attention — and ones that hold it during your pauses — the phrases above and others suited to your own style can reduce the frustration most of us feel when no one seems to be listening. It’s far better to push open the gate than to let it close because you haven’t practiced such skills and learned the extent of personal determination to exert.

Kathleen also blogs here.

Photo: nchisft/

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