We learn to be in conversation and learn language by taking turns. At best there is a jazz like, co-orchestrating rhythm to it. You speak and I give my whole attention to your words, your voice and your presence. It is more than listening. I am engaging with you, assisting your way of finding the words you need for your feelings, ideas and stories. You can tell when my attention is no longer with you, wanders or worse, when I am just waiting for my turn and am about to interrupt you. Interruption is important to co-orchestrating a conversation. Let's say that there are four kinds of interruption.


The first kind of interruption is that mix of responses in support of you and the flow of your words. Gestures of validation, questions seeking clarification, repetition and recap of your words for emphasis and validation. There is phatic quality to some of these phrases: 'yeah, you're right, that's so, but also'. As a conversational relationship goes there is room within this type of interruption for challenges ( I am just wondering if you might also see it this way) and invitations to elaborate (do you mean such and such?). Over and above this is a conversational style of interruption when I show I am listening and going along with you by briefly taking the spotlight on me and giving an example from my experience that echoes your experience.


This whole style of interruption has a quality of talking with each other. That is where a good conversation starts from, has its struggles and comes back home to at the end. The side-by-side interpersonal quality of talking with is beautifully touched in the lines from Seamus Heaney's poem Album (Human Chain 2010) "Side by side about a love that's proved by steady gazing not at each other but in the same direction."


The second kind of interruption is when we start talking for the other person. It can have qualities of controlling, patronising, rescuing whilst possibly being caring in intent. I invite you into talking for me. Or you may tend to go there because of your role or position and social heritage. I may want you to talk for me. I may feel I need your power and your voice or your way with words but the base note in any such orchestration of power and influence should be talking with.


It is easy to rock the mutuality of the conversational boat in this way and the third kind of interruption is waiting to tip it right over. This is when our interruptions, once in the name of turn taking, or assisting each other become talking at each other. The tone becomes declamatory and accusative. It is the tone of bickering as pairs and bantering as groups: the pronouns of choice are you, you, you or me, me, me. It is the conversational style of our worst politicians and pundits.


The fourth kind of interruption is the opposite of side-by-side but is one that is head-to-head. It is divisive and confrontational. It is a feeling of talking against each other. It pushes the conversation into a binary of either I am talking or you are talking; either I am right and you are wrong - a mutually assured destruction of knowingness. It may serve the purpose of warding off the threat of entanglement and the loss of self in the intimacy of the conversation or it is an encounter with differences of beliefs, memories and values. In the form of bickering one to one or bantering in a group it may be a narrow but necessary way of surviving being in contact or maintaining a partnership in spite of perceived differences or to cope with a threat from elsewhere.

Mary and John could so often lose the conversational goodwill of talking with each other which was where they started with phatic nods and smiles (we need to talk, yes great let's talk). Talking with each other turned to talk for each other (I know what you are saying) and talking at each other in a yeah, yeah, yeah kind of routine bickering that ended feeling like talking against each other. They had a deep yearning for a good talk and could end up with the kind of protective banter of talking things up (we'll be fine) or down and away (never mind, not important). What helped them was a capacity to step back and see the push and pull of the conversation from the outside (is this the talk we want or need?). A spirit of talking with each other is not some special therapeutic nirvana. As in the grid diagram above the shared feeling of talking with each other can lively, unstable, volatile and fragile if achieved and is easily and inevitably pulled or pushed into talking to, or for, against, up or down and away.


We cannot talk well when it is our turn in the conversational spotlight without us doing some of these things that add up to talking with but the risk is that these interruptions slide inperceptibly into interruptions that end in talking for, talking at or talking against each other.

The challenge is to notice, name and negotiate these micro shifts in the conversational spotlight and the give and take of voice and attention as they push and pull our words along.


For more on this theme see: Chapter 5, Conversational Awareness in Potter 2022 Talking with a Map Shoreham on Sea Pavilion Publishing.


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Over twenty years of teaching teams and organisations to support their discussions with pen and paper we kept meeting the same insight so often it became familiar and we gave it a name: the one-third rule or the thirds rule. Someone in the team would say it is not us it's them. Or it's the management, or the system or the professions and consultants who dip in and out of everyday working life. No we are not, someone else would say, or it is you? is it us? or them? or the system? These are uncomfortable moments when you don't start sticking the tail on the donkey because the donkey might be you. Or more personally it is all your fault. Or more martyred it is all me.


Mapping moments at work in teams, especially where there is a complex mix of roles and tasks something surprising often happens. We notice that we are working with a mixture of roles and responsibilities. The fingers stop pointing at each other and point at the different places on the map with observations and then negotiations about me being here on the map and you being there. We hover and shimmer between different points of view and ways of seeing and saying things. Looking at the map of the keywords in the conversation it is more clear that there are several patterns of relating going on at once. The map measures up to this complex push and pull of influence and control as well as the call and response of voices for and against.


Mapping and tracking this vital and often fleeting to and fro of ideas and feelings led to us making what we called the "one-third rule". It goes like this, in any moment of difficult or conflicting views, or in any moment of breakthrough and celebration keep in mind or bring up the "one-third rule" which is to say one-third of what is driving what is happening for better or worse right now is coming from me, one third is coming from you and one third is coming from the system. Don't pin it all on one of these three. Of course, it is tempting because to pin it all on one tidies up the conversation. It may make things tidier to blame the system or take it all on yourself but the reality is always more nuanced. It is never exactly one-third this person is responsible and one-third me and one-third the system. It is simply a useful rule of thumb to hold in mind and check in with automatically like a driver checking the rearview mirror.


For more on the one-third rule see Therapy with a Map or check out details to book for the workshop Ten Key Skills in Talking with a Map




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Are we getting along? Are we going round in circles? Are we in role? On task? what is the process? Are we socially aware and answerable to each other?


Whenever we are doing things together regardless of what it is, we have an eye on how things are going. I like to think of how we do what we do as a dance. When we dance we are engaged in a multi-sensory process: working with inner and outer realities; listening to the music; watching our moves and feeling our bodies. Conversations when they are not taken for granted or simply transactional are not so different to the multi-media, multi-sensory orchestration of dancing. There is a pattern to it with a pace, a rhythm and steps. Some dances we know and fall into without thinking. Others throw us off balance and need practice and negotiation. The dances we do have patterns of relating which have a push and pull of power with moments of leading and following. Away from the dance floor, there are deeply woven dances between men and women, between bosses and employees, politicians and the media, parents and children. There are also micro dances we do such as the side shuffle, barging through or giving way as our paths cross on the street.


When the dance goes wrong, when it doesn't fit the needs or circumstances of that interaction, then we need to notice, name and negotiate how to change the dance. The problem is we are quick to blame the dancer. Someone has clumsy feet, someone is leading too strongly or not following in the right way. Blaming the dancer is like rushing to judgement and missing out on naming the dance carefully, with compassion step-by-step. We are too pressured and too driven to get the job done or the talk transacted to stop and reflect on how we are relating. To stop and talk about the process is exposing and can be anticipated as judgy or embarrassing. So we tend to avoid it, dismiss it as distraction or postpone it to some future, magic time when we hope pennies easily drop and reflection kicks in. It is true that talking about how we are getting along and who has what roles and how each of us is helping or hindering is likely to be personal. It might raise challenging issues of gender, privilege and power. It may touch on differences of personality and temperament. The process is complex and once the moment has passed it gets fogged over by new events and interactions. We rehearse privately in the moment what we might say but then carry grudges and 'should-have-saids' within us. When or if we do speak in the immediate moment about what is going on (and it is not a routine and natural part of the conversation) it can feel accusative as if what is happening is somebody's fault and there is something wrong. When we do speak, we need the three C's of compassion, courage and curiosity but above all we need the patience to find a fourth C called clarity. Clarity comes more easily and more mutually when we talk with a map.


We have to watch out for blaming and shaming the dancers when we name the dance.

The quality of how we introduce the shift from content to process is crucial. It needs to be an open address from us to we, or we to us. What are we doing? This inclusive approach steps back from the accusative voice that says with finger pointing: what are you doing? Or the confessional voice saying: it is all me. Its my fault. The pronoun of choice is neither you or me but we. How are we doing this dance? Where does it come from between us, within us and around us?

If we start with the idea that we are part of something, we are putting attention to the whole pattern of interaction at that time, in that moment in this context. We are naming the dance and achieving a careful multi-dimensional description of it and our experience of it before making or considering any judgement about answerability and responsibility.


For more along these lines of conversational and reflective awareness see Therapy with a Map (Potter 2020) or Talking with a Map (2022) Or book into the half day webinar on Key Skills in Talking with a Map on the bookings page of this site

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