About a year ago, my friend Jill said to me: "It's hard to talk with some of my more extroverted friends, because everyone just moves on so fast. As an introvert, I need time. I feel like if I had just a little space of silence then I could talk, but when it's moving so fast, I can't break in. So people just think I'm quiet."
It occurred to me that I might be one of the friends who might be the conversational equivalent of a bulldozer. Jill is a good listener, no doubt; a natural empath. As a speaker, I have a tendency to go on long monologues that contain a lot of detail on what everyone said and also what I'm cooking these days and work and this amazing book of essays I just read and I've started drawing again, it's so fun, I've been mostly drawing animals from this book called 20 Ways to Draw a Cat and I drew Miyazaki-inspired artwork on my pink ukulele with a sharpie and you know how that movie Ponyo is so meaningful to me and I used the imagery for the birth of my second child and hey, don't you think we should start a band??
I told my therapist that I'd noticed conversations with some of my friends felt lopsided. Not just in their direction, but mine as well. I wanted them to be more balanced but wasn't sure how to achieve that.
"Time your conversations," he said.
"Wow, that seems aggressive," I said.
"Well, it's a practice. It's dyadic communication. In Jill's case, it could be a practice to claim her time. For you, it could be a practice to yield the floor. And it could be temporary. You could time the conversations until it just becomes second nature."
He has been my therapist for the last fifteen years and has not let me down once. He's been there through bad relationships, my marriage of thirteen years, the deaths of my brother and my father, and the births of my children, not to mention all the minutiae in my life. So I pretty much do what he suggests when it comes to things like this. Also, I'm a speech language pathologist, so it's not like structured conversations are a totally foreign idea. It's just that I've never actually been in one where I'm not the expert but a willing and possibly vulnerable participant. In the interest of seeing what might unfold, I decided to embrace the structure and the awkwardness it might entail. "All right, I'm in," I said.
When hanging out with Jill one night at a kava bar, I ask her if she would be willing to try it with me. "I'm working on making my conversations more balanced with this timed-conversation exercise my therapist suggested," I tell her. I feel a little self-conscious and nervous even asking. "Would you want to help me practice that?"
She says she would be open to it. "How does it work?"
Here's how it works: Two people take turns having a conversation, with equal time for each. It can be one minute or it can be twenty minutes, on the topic of their choice. The other person listens, quietly. Then, when the time is up, the listener reflects back what they think they heard. Like, you literally have to say, "So what I think I hear you saying is ..." We make a lot of assumptions about what is being said. We also tend to bring our own neuroses to the table, so there's a lot of possibility for interference. This is an opportunity to get the facts straight as well as reflect the emotional content of what was said.
After summarizing, the listener says, "Did I miss anything?" If the speaker has anything to add, they do it now, and eventually the listener catches it all. They switch places, and the listener speaks for the same amount of time the speaker did.
"This is too much pressure," Jill says to me. "I don't know what to say!" We are sipping kava from coconut shells. Kava is made from kava root and is supposed to make you feel chill and alert. We are starting to realize that the task of timing conversations is more intimidating than we thought it would be.