The Seesaw Principle of Conversations

Conversations are like a seesaw. They rock back and forth from listening to speaking. And, sometimes they get stuck in one position. I’ve heard it described it like this:

“An unbalanced conversation with a person who talks too much is like trying to seesaw with an elephant. There’s not much give and take and you are pretty much stuck up in the air till the elephant gets off.”

Taking up too much conversational space can have a harmful effect on a relationship. When a friend hangs up the phone and sighs, “She never asks about my life,” that points to a conversation imbalance which, over time, can rock most relationships.

That Scary Seesaw Feeling – And Talking Too Little

As a kid, I remember the thrill of hitting the top of the seesaw, giving me that roller-coaster pit-in-the-stomach feeling. For some people and in some situations, speaking up can be equally frightening. They find it hard to insert their words into a chatty airspace, preferring to keep their thoughts to themselves. They may need to feel a level of comfort, especially in new relationships, before speaking up. Or they may just have a strong personality preference to be more of a listener than a talker.

There is no one right way to be in any single conversation. What’s important is how each person in the relationship feels about the balance.

What if you have a relationship where the conversational seesaw is out of balance? What does it take to reach equilibrium? Here are a few tips:

For a frequent talker: Check to see if you’re leaving space for the other person to get into the conversation. Notice the body language of your listener. Do they have that zoned out look? Are they leaning in as if they want to say something? Does your discomfort with silence cause you to fill in the gaps? The more you talk, the less the other person will talk, especially if they’re naturally introverted. You might also find some helpful ideas on my post: Conversation Steamroller Blues.

For a frequent listener: Recognize that you have something to say and believe that your conversation partner wants to hear it. Let go of the fear of judgement. You can always nudge someone towards listening by asking, “Would you like to hear my thoughts on this?” Asking a question may grab their attention and shift the balance. Realize that when you keep a lot to yourself, some people may not feel as connected to you as they (and you) would like.

Are Balanced Conversations the Goal?

Of course, conversations don’t always need to seesaw back and forth. If you’ve been in the presence of someone who has suffered a great loss, you may find that they need to do a great deal of the talking. “Yes, I can imagine how difficult that is,” you might hear yourself replying. And that’s fine. Balance isn’t always the goal.

But, if you find that you have a relationship that you would like to improve, taking a look at the conversation balance might provide a few clues. Yogi Berra may have captured the importance of listening best when he famously said,

“It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.”

Are some of your conversations as unbalanced as a seesaw? Are you talking and listening as each conversation requires? I would love to hear from frequent talkers and listeners to learn, what would you say? (or not say!)

*Top Image & Quote: Seesawing with an Elephant from: Doug and Mildred Ramsey at PostivePresentations.com

8 thoughts on “The Seesaw Principle of Conversations

  1. Hi Jamie….. Loved this!! I think you nailed it beautifully, and I will share this with my colleagues. Your insight about the importance of listening to a person who is talking about a loss – whether death, the ultimate loss, or any other loss – is right on. In that situation, people just want to be heard. The best thing to do is just be there, and listen, and avoid the temptation to fill in with your own story when there is a moment of silence. Allow the silence – it invites more sharing from the person who needs to be heard. Thanks so much!!!!

    • Thanks, Mary. I love what you added about silence and how it invites more sharing. For others who are reading Mary’s message, I will add that she is a grief counselor, so this is wisdom from one who knows!

  2. From someone who is in the more talkative end it has been helpful to starting conversations, but you are correct, we need to stop and allow others to jump in and then if things start dying down, we can jump start the conversation again. I have been thanked many times for helping out when there are those that it is hard to converse with in the group. It is that seesaw balance when it comes to conversation skills. Thanks for the great post.

  3. You mean they are not leaning in to hear me more clearly? :-)
    I always enjoy your posts and try to keep them in mind as I am yammering away. After reading your blog for a few months now and paying attention more, I have realized that, honestly, most of my side of a “conversation” is nervous chatter.

    • Yep! That used to be me and if I’m not careful it still sometimes is. Recognizing the yammering is half the battle. Thanks, always, for commenting and leaving me with a smile.

  4. Pingback: Look, stop and listen! | basangsisiw

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