Turn-Taking Rituals to Tame the Complexity of Group Conversations
Three’s a Crowd, Four’s a Mob
Groups can move mountains if everyone is pushing in the same direction. More often, group conversations ping pong back and forth. The conversation flow gets stuck, drifts, or overheats. Why are group conversations so messy?
Alignment and connection in one-on-one conversations is complex enough. In groups, these connections compound, fast. The illustration below draws lines of conversation between each participant. As the headcount grows, these connections grow even more quickly. On the lower left, we have two people and one line of connection. With three people we have three lines of conversation to wrangle into one group discussion. Once we get past three people, the lines of conversation stack up rapidly. Five people can have 10 possible lines of dialogue.
Six folks have up to 15 lines of conversation to untangle!
Interactions shift quickly from complicated to chaotic.
People struggle to be heard and to hear others over the noise.
It’s also easy to get sidelined if a person or pair of people dominate the floor. The exclusion factor only gets larger as we increase the number of participants. Who gets heard or ignored? Who feels empowered to speak and why? Can groups improve their collaboration without an official leader taking control?
Taming Complexity with Turn-Taking Rituals
There’s one in every group: the guy who opens his mouth first. (and sorry…yes, for some reason, it’s a guy!)
What’s the big deal? Someone has to break the ice, right?
The deal is this: The first speaker sets the tone for the rest of the conversation, anchoring the terms of the debate. The second speaker builds a thread from that first turn, whether they agree with the first speaker or oppose them.
Simple turn-taking rituals can help balance participation.
In my men’s group, we use popcorning to balance participation and slow down the cadence of heated conversations. When you pop a pot of popcorn, any kernel can pop whenever it wants, but it must pop and only once. In a popcorn conversation, each person gets to speak once on a key issue, whenever they like, no hand-raising required. The whole group takes ownership of balancing the turn-taking.
Round-Robin conversations use seating order to determine speaking order. The conversation flows around a circle of people, and each person takes a turn. This mode can be faster than popcorning since no one spends time deciding if they want to speak. On the downside, knowing you are going last isn’t always fun. Passing the baton can alleviate this issue.
The current speaker chooses the next speaker, keeping everyone focused on distributing turn-taking.
These simple ritual patterns can refresh group conversations and ensure everyone is heard.
If you want to really stretch your turn-taking patterns, I’m a fan of Quaker style meetings which set a high bar for taking a turn:
Everyone waits in shared silence until someone is moved by the Spirit (i.e. has a strong religious feeling) to share something
A person will only speak if they are convinced that they have something that must be shared, and it is rare for a person to speak more than once.
The words should come from the soul — from the inner light — rather than the mind.
The Cadence of Size in Group Conversations
In larger groups, it takes a long time to hear from everyone using rounds or popcorn structures. Even with those patterns, the first speaker still has an outsized impact on the group. Breaking up the larger conversation into smaller ones, and rejoining them later, can reduce cognitive load — smaller group conversations are easier to manage. In this way, no single first speaker can affect the entire group. In the bargain, shy speakers have less of a place to hide in a group of two or three.
There are many game-like structures to manage the dividing and recombining of groups. 1–2–4-All is one of the simplest to “invoke” and run without a facilitator. While I used it for years in my own work, I didn’t have a clear name for it until I saw it in the Liberating Structures collection. 1–2–4-All works well for groups from 8 to 80. You can play with the timings to suit your needs. It works like this:
One: Each person has one minute to think about whatever issue is at hand. Start with a clear “conversation starter.”
Two: Find a partner and take two minutes for both people to share what they thought about the issue.
Four: Two sets of partners combine and take four minutes to connect and discuss what came up in each paired conversation.
All: Each group of four shares one idea from their conversation with the whole group, for one to two minutes each.
These group-forming and turn-taking patterns help a larger group conversation advance gradually and progressively. Groups can collapse into “groupthink” quickly. Patterns like 1–2–4-All shift that tendency and allow real group thinking to emerge.
Talking Alone, Talking Together (TATT)
Using your turn to invite people to speak according to one of these simple patterns is a thoughtful way to begin a group conversation — instead of just “getting down to business.”
Giving everyone a moment to understand and consider their own opinions and ideas on whatever topic is at hand is powerful. It protects the introverts from the extroverts and protects the extroverts from themselves. Often, those who suffer from first speaker syndrome don’t know how their affliction affects the larger conversation. The ideal solution is for everyone to talk at the same time, which is possible if we shift the interface of the conversation.
Using a paper interface for the conversation (like sticky notes) makes each participant’s perspective physical. Each person’s ideas can be pointed to, moved around and connected to everyone else’s. Taking a few minutes for solo recording also slows the cadence of the conversation, allowing people to absorb information more fully, like Amanda Palmer’s dinner table conversation, but at scale.
With TATT, it’s possible to make sure that no voice gets left behind. Each person’s voice is clearly and independently expressed.
I use this pattern of simultaneous turn-taking as often as I can to create safety and clarity in communication for myself and others. Adding stickies to 1–2–4-All can create a magical group conversation.
If you want to learn how to have better conversations with yourself, in your life and in your work check out my book, Good Talk. Turn-taking is just one of nine elements that can help you transform your conversations in work and life.