Balance in Conversation

23.07.2021 |

Episode #3 of the course Mastering your conversations by John Robin


Welcome back to the course!

In the last two lessons, we’ve talked about authentic listening and permission behaviors, all aimed at helping you continue a great conversation.

But all of this leads naturally to another crucial part of conversations, which is what today’s lesson will be all about. Get ready for a lesson on another aspect of conversation mastery: balance.


When to Talk, When to Listen: Striking the Balance

In the first lesson, I mentioned the importance of putting yourself last and asking great questions. However, if you simply use this tip to its fullest, it might lead you to feel like in a conversation, you are simply a detective in interrogation mode.

Always asking questions can take the focus off you entirely. It can also be intimidating to the other person, since they may always feel on the spot.

The best conversations have balance. Think of them like a tennis match. Asking non-stop questions is like serving a new ball again and again, before the other person even has a chance to send the first one back to you.

We all have a need to be heard when we have a conversation. This means you are just as important as the other person. Our first lesson has already established how, first and foremost, you show you are actually interested in what the other person is saying, by way of authentic listening.

Once you arrive in this place, though, then you can imagine the conversation that ensues as a tennis match: You ask a question, and the other person responds. That’s their return volley. As you listen authentically, imagine you are carefully eyeing the ball, deciding on the best move.

Before you respond, instead of just thinking of another question, just like in a great tennis game, you have a few options how you can advance the conversation:

• Share your thoughts on what they said

• Relate with one of your experiences

• Ask another question only if it feels like the best natural response

This third point is very important. There’s nothing wrong with asking another question, like in the following example:

[You] “Did you see any great movies lately?”

[Another person] “Just some stupid shark movie. You wouldn’t be interested.”

[You] “Do you mean The Meg?”

[Another person] “Exactly.”

[You] “I saw it too. Actually, I loved it!”

The above example shows a common pattern that emerges in conversions: the other person doesn’t always respond with full enthusiasm. Sometimes, people will do this if they have assumptions about what you’re interested in. Here is where it’s great to ask another question to show your interest.

A good rule of thumb with this is, if you ask a question twice on the same topic and get a non-committal answer, don’t persist. Change the topic.

For example:

[You] “Did you see any great movies lately?”

[Another person] “Just some stupid shark movie, you wouldn’t be interested.”

[You] “Do you mean The Meg?”

[Another person] “Nah. Like I said, you wouldn’t care.”

[You] “Alright. Hey, how about your son? Did you have coffee with him this week?”

Just like sparks to a fire, questions are great to get a conversation started. Once you get it in motion, the first two options—sharing your thoughts, and relating your own experiences—can come into play a lot more.

But you might find, in fact, those come into play too much. This is where it helps to always hold onto lesson one’s tip about considering yourself the least interesting person in the room. If you catch yourself blabbing on and on, try to wrap up what you’re saying and lead toward a natural pause, where you allow the other person to start a new topic, or you can ask a question and get the other person involved again.

If you struggle with how to do this, it’s actually fine to call this right out. For example:

“Geez, look at me talking your ear off!”


“Well, I could blab on and on about this, but I’ll stop here.”

You might find this leads to a bit of a pause while either of you thinks of something to say. And that’s fine too. In fact, it brings us to our final point in this lesson about balance.

We all know those moments when the room falls quiet, and most likely, everyone is trying to think of something to say. These are totally okay! A good conversation isn’t a high-intensity performance where you can’t miss a beat. We’re only human.

If silence goes on too long and it makes you self-conscious, you can always make a small joke about it:

“We’ve run out of things to say!”


“It’s so quiet in here!”

Just make sure to laugh and smile when you say this. Keeping the mood light lets the other people in the conversation relax and know they’re free to talk, or be quiet, but first and foremost, your interest in the conversation is in the fully balanced conversation itself—not just the sound of your own voice.


Tip of the Day: The Conversation Pillow

Here’s a useful visualization tip I’ve found works well to maintain balance in a conversation. I learned this in a conversation therapy group, but it’s been popularized through the Breaking Bad TV series.

Imagine, when you start a conversation, that the speaker has a pillow. Think of it as the “conversation pillow”. The person who has that pillow is entitled to share what they want to say fairly. The only rule is, when they are done speaking, they have to pass the pillow to the other person, and then it’s that person’s turn to share fairly.

If you’re the first one to speak, imagine you’re holding that pillow. When you tend to dominate a conversation, usually you’ll find it feels like you’re holding that pillow close and thus depriving the other person of their share. I personally notice a tension in my shoulders when I catch myself in this over-sharing mode.

When you tend to not share enough, usually you’ll notice your arms feel empty. You might find you imagine the other person clutching the pillow unfairly, or perhaps the pillow has just been thrown on the floor and you’re afraid to pick it up. When I practice this technique, I often realize there’s something I want to say but am hesitant to say it, and thus realize I need to participate more in the conversation.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s lesson, where we’ll move onto the next frontier of conversation mastery: the anatomy of a conversation.


Recommended book

How To Win and Influence People by Dale Carnegie


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