The conversation hack you've never heard of

Skip the Small Talk Conversational Pauses.jpg

Imagine you’re in an animated conversation with someone. You both laugh at something together, but then your chuckles trail off and you’re left in silence. What now?

Do you say something immediately? Do you wait for the other person to say something, no matter how long that takes? Do you jump in with whatever enters your head? Of course, it likely differs from situation to situation, but you probably average some number of seconds before you say something new if the other person doesn’t say anything, and you probably don’t stray too far from that average too often.

This may seem like a minute detail of conversation, but if you’ve ever felt like you just “clicked” with someone or that you just didn’t like talking to someone even though you’re having trouble pointing to anything in particular they said to explain it, having compatible “conversational pause lengths” can be one of those factors that contributes to really liking or really disliking talking to someone.

Here’s why: If your friend is waiting fifteen seconds before filling a silence (which to most people probably seems like a *very* long time), and you wait only three seconds before filling a silence, chances are that over time, you’ll be much more in control of what topics get discussed when you’re hanging out with your friend. Your friend may end up feeling less in control when they hang out with you and/or less heard and/or less understood, because they’re not getting the chance to talk about the things that they most want to talk about at any given moment, while you’re consistently getting the chance to talk about whatever you’d like.

What can you do about a conversational pause length imbalance in either direction? Having awareness is a great first step. A useful marker for who’s exerting more conversational control, and therefore who might have the tendency toward shorter conversational pauses,  is whose topic you’re talking about most of the time.

If you notice you’re primarily talking about topics the other person is bringing up, even if those topics are about you, the other person might have a tendency toward shorter conversational pauses than you. If that’s the case, you might want to have a metaconversation with them about how you might make things a little more even, and you might want to ask them to leave a little more space for silence when talking with you. You may also want to experiment with editing yourself less so that you can shorten your conversational pauses. This can be tough and take a bit of time to do habitually, but you may get quite a bit out of the resulting conversational control.

If you notice during a conversation with someone that you are primarily talking about topics that you bring up, you might naturally tend toward shorter conversational pauses than the other person, and you might want to try incorporating longer silences (yes, even if it feels awkward, because longer silences might feel uncomfortable if you’re not used to them) in points in the conversation where there might be a natural end to a particular topic or subtopic.

So try and bring some awareness to how the length of your conversational pauses interacts with other people’s. There’s no inherently right or wrong quantity of time to wait before adding your own thoughts, but it might help you connect with a broader range of people if you’re more able to be aware of and adapt to other people’s conversational pause tendencies.