It’s Not a Conversation If You’re The Only One Talking


It takes two, at least, to make a conversation. Which we all know in theory.

But we’ve all been there—the conversations that begin where you’re smiling politely, nodding, listening, while someone else talks. Maybe it’s a colleague or a boss, who’s understandably passionate about their vision for a project.

After a while, you try politely to interrupt. With no success. It almost seems impossible to interrupt the waterfall of words. Even worse—and we can all relate to this—you find yourself still nodding quite a while later, but your mind has begun to drift elsewhere.

What just happened?

Well, not a conversation. This is a classic example of poor communication—a monologue disguised as dialogue. And even though you’ve just been nodding, it can take up a surprising amount of your emotional energy. So how come we all seem to find ourselves in situations like this from time to time?

What the Laws of Influence Say…

The Sphere of Influence 360˚ has a way to explain this. Here, we’ve got one person talking and another person who’s listening passively. Person A, the talker, is Leading the conversation. Person B, the listener, is forced somewhat involuntarily over to the opposite side of the Sphere, where they have no choice but to Follow. 

The more proactive you are—whether that’s enthusiasm, habit, or even stress—the quieter most others around you are encouraged to become. Eventually, you alone are talking, and it’s not a conversation at all. And the opposite applies, too. Here an example to illustrate this.

Jon’s Meeting

Jon’s leading a meeting to update others on his project. As he talks, he’s looking at his screen. And he wonders why nobody has anything to say.

Suddenly, Jon is reminded of his college days, where he sat quietly bored while his tutor droned on, making no room for input or interaction. He realizes he has become his tutor. That he’s being a little too proactive and needs to back down.

He asks a question of his team instead: “What do you think?”, and he pausesAnd then the magic happens. He finally gets what he was after the whole time—others’ ideas, thoughts and opinions.

Why Do We Do It?

We don’t often launch into monologues of our own accord. But the surprising part is not that we don’t realize we’re monologuing. In fact, we do.

In reality, most people realize when they are overwhelming their conversation partner. That is, they sense they are losing touch through their approach, and want to do something about it. Often people even start working harder, in fact, amplifying the very behaviour that is causing the disconnect. The communication style itself is not a conscious decision, but when we get stuck into it, we often do notice.

So why do we do it?

Many reasons. Jon, for example, was overly excited about his project and got slightly carried away by his enthusiasm. His team, as can be expected, felt somewhat overwhelmed. They felt pressured. Other reasons include:

  • Nerves – Jon could just as easily have felt stressed about presenting to the team; and
  • Concerns – Deeply rooted convictions like ‘I must be clear’, or ’you must always give your opinion’; there are tons of these convictions that consciously drive our behaviors.

Adapting Your Approach

How can you avoid this? I often tell my clients to bring along a tangible reminder. Bring a key chain, or a certain pen, and place it on the table where you can see it or put a post with a reminder on your screen when you are interacting online. This can be a helpful reminder to ask yourself: “Is this a conversation?

If it’s only you talking, the answer may be ‘no’, and it may be time to take a step back. Invite others to contribute and play an active role.

Or, taking this to the next level, we may find ourselves on the other side of the table.

That is to say, we may catch ourselves playing the role of the passive listener. Here, we can still play a role to maintain that connection by encouraging ourselves to listen. Not just nod and ‘hear’, but to actively listen and put ourselves in the other’s shoes. Not just react, but interjecting with our own contribution when the time is right. Are we understanding? Do we ‘get’ what the other is really saying?

If you feel you can relate to either side these common scenarios, do let me know what you think.

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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