Your turn, you go ahead, no you, please you go….


Conversational turn-taking is a dance and the rules around it are hard-wired

As children we learn how to be polite, how to communicate respectfully, when to speak and stay silent. Our early cultural programming influences how comfortable we are with pauses in a conversation (millisecond micro gaps) and whether it’s appropriate to interrupt the flow of speech from another person (or not).

Most of us who have been raised in Northern European cultures have a “no gap/no overlap” detector. When those accepted norms are contravened, for example when someone talks over us or does not allow a gap for response, our subconscious bias can quickly kick in. Words such as “rude”, “impatient”, ”impolite” may spring to mind, labelling our partner in conversation, and we are already on the slippery slope of distrust!

We are talking about 200 milliseconds here.  

Consider that in relation to the 150 millisecond audio lag Zoom users may experience at best on a call and add the 150 milliseconds it may take for a response.  For some, that gap may be unbearably long and the need to keep the conversation flowing is strong. For others, the gap is needed to indicate deference and show consideration for what has just been said.

Even if we are aware of the differences in conversational turn-taking across cultures, it’s not easy to manage the flow without skilful facilitation. As we all probably know to our cost, technology alone does not guarantee the smooth-running of a virtual meeting.

Have you ever felt you were not being properly listened to because another colleague was taking up all the discussion time and your attempted interruption wasn’t noticed? Or perhaps you may have experienced sound issues on a call and have had to second guess what someone else was trying to say?


Consider how that made you feel and how you continued to engage in the conversation as a result.

We may brush off these seemingly small annoyances and move on, but what we know from much research on the subject is that conversational turn-taking is a critical factor in raising the intelligence quotient of a team.

It is also a key aspect of psychological safety, which in turn is a key element of trust.

The second critical aspect of psychological safety is social sensitivity

Social sensitivity is about correctly reading signals and mood and reacting in an appropriate way. So, on a video call, you may have been asking yourself this:

  • Was she really cross, frustrated or upset?
  • Was that about something I did?
  • Was something happening in the background (or just the general level of stress she is experiencing)?

Our new video workplace reality helps to keep relationships alive, but still leaves some important gaps.

  • How can you wink to someone across the room to indicate sympathy?
  • Or track the shared emotional sense of the room, the mood, the warmth, the level of engagement?
  • Have you noticed how comedy just doesn’t work in the same way?  It seems more laboured when TV comedians are participating from their isolated work/home spaces rather than being in a shared mood of humour together in the recording studio.

In these times of great uncertainty and insecurity we need high levels of trust in each other

You can’t get things done or move quickly without trust, but how to build it is easier said than done.

As a starting point let’s recognise the limitations of virtual working and when we are feeling increasingly “zoomed out”, we can strive to be kinder and more patient toward ourselves and others for not being “there” in all senses on the word.

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