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Can We Talk?

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

I follow a talking dog on Instagram. Really, a talking dog! Her name is Bunny and she “talks” to her human parents using buttons that say words when she presses them. She can say things like “play” and “walk” and even form short sentences like “stranger outside.”

Watching Bunny’s conversations with her humans reminds me of how uniquely gifted we are with our ability to talk to one another. After many months on Zoom, as we started to gather back in person, many people talked about how they were out of practice in having conversations. We all felt a bit rusty!

We could use a few reminders and tips on how to have meaningful, productive conversations no matter how we gather—online, in-person, or hybrid. Here are some points to remember that we have found helpful in the gatherings and meetings we have hosted and attended:

1. Intention: Coming into a conversation, whether it is in-person or on Zoom, with the intention to connect from the beginning sets the stage for how it starts, continues, and ends. If your intention is to connect, you will listen better and talk more openly and from the heart.

2. Interruptions: Oftentimes, we interrupt the person talking with our own stories, thoughts, or ideas. Our intention may be to enhance the conversation, but the opposite usually happens--we stop the talker in their tracks and cut them off, especially if we turn the conversation to us. Using active listening, putting your own agenda aside, and focusing on what the other person is saying without interrupting them helps the other person to be truly heard and seen.

On Zoom, interrupting takes on a whole new life. We can get voice delays, and just when we think it’s ok to start saying something, the other person re-starts their part of the conversation. So we stop and they stop and we have to decide who gets the floor. One way to avoid that is to raise your hand or use the “raise your hand” button available on the bottom of your screen to let others know you would like to say something. Or, as a group, you can decide on a phrase (“I am done.” “That’s all.”) that could serve a signal that you are done talking.

3. Fears: We might be afraid that if we are giving the other person the floor and listening, we will not have a chance to talk and our own thoughts and ideas will disappear--that is when we interrupt and interject. Ask yourself if your agenda of getting your thoughts across is of greater importance than that connection you are making with the other person at that time. The answer to that will mostly be that it is not. You can also make sure that you share your thoughts by asking the talker to listen back to you. This is where the “raise your hand” Zoom button works very well.

In teams: Teams have some unique challenges in holding conversations within a group of people, no matter where the gathering takes place. Here are some questions to ponder as you work in teams:

1. Who is the loudest? It is easy for the loudest people to hold the floor. The team members who are quieter may end up feeling invisible and looked over. Make sure to notice who those people are and ask them for their ideas directly. This is especially important if you are on Zoom, where it is so much harder to interject something while the loudest voices are talking.

2. Who has the power? If you are in the position of power, as the boss or the team leader, notice who is being overlooked--make sure the women or the minorities in the room have an equal opportunity to share.

3. Circle process to the rescue! Maryanne and I use the restorative circle practice in a lot of gatherings when we want to make sure that everyone has a chance to talk and to listen. Sitting in a circle, rather than around a table, allows for all voices to have an equal value. Going around the circle and inviting everyone to share while the rest of the team is listening prevents the loudest and the most powerful people from keeping the floor and invites all the voices to be heard.

You can easily do this on Zoom--just call on all the participants directly, as if you were in a circle. Since the order of the people on the screen can shuffle and re-shuffle on Zoom, Maryanne and I write down the names of people in the order they join the meeting. This then becomes the order of the circle, and we call on everyone to share in that order.


· Do you remember a conversation when you felt truly seen and heard?

· What was that conversation like? What did the listener do right?

· What do you find helpful in having conversations in-person, on Zoom, or hybrid?

· How do you make sure everyone involved is heard and seen?

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