This is the second post in the listening series. You can check out the first post right here.
Do you ever get spoken over?
It’s exhausting, isn’t it?
My caucus score is a 5, so I get spoken over a lot.
Sometimes I point it out. “Excuse me, I was saying something.” If I do this, I know I’m taking a risk. I have to trust that my interlocutors genuinely want to hear what I have to say, and that they’ll quickly realize their mistake and backtrack without holding anything against me. If I’m wrong about any of that, I’m coded as “abrasive” and “aggressive”. So I don’t do this often.
Most of the time, I sit back, relax, and drink my tea.
This isn’t because I’m a patient person. I’m not.
But I do have two deliberate reasons for it:
- I know that, even if I got to talk, my message likely wouldn’t make an impact. So my time is better spent listening to the discussion (or sometimes, if I’m honest, daydreaming about compilers) than jockeying for air time.
- I understand why it happens. It happens to me, too. I think of the things I say as contributions to dialogue. And as a Team Player™, I want to contribute!
The motivation to help ourselves to speaking time comes from a culture that recognizes individual accomplishments more than team outcomes, and often credits the most visible individual for the work of a team. We want discussions to be productive, but we don’t optimize for that; we optimize for our own airtime.
We tend to evaluate ourselves in comparison to other interlocutors. We rarely evaluate the discussion that happened in comparison to a theoretical, more productive discussion that could have happened.
A theoretical discussion that could have happened? What does that mean?
To explain that, we need to talk about false negatives.
In 2009, a programmer named Brian Acton interviewed for a position at Facebook. Facebook passed on Acton’s application, presumably going with another candidate, while Acton moved on to other things. In his case, “other things” included co-founding a small company called WhatsApp to provide a secure communications platform. In early 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for 19 billion dollars. For that amount, Facebook could have have hired and retained between 10,000 and 16,000 programmers for that period of time.
What do you make of this story? One interpretation: Facebook cost themselves billions by passing on a prodigy. Another interpretation: Facebook did themselves a favor by rejecting Acton and facilitating the conditions for him to found WhatsApp. Both of these interpretations are wildly oversimplified. It doesn’t matter. What matters for us is that this story encourages people to think about the alternatives to the story we got.
I think those alternatives are worth considering—the value that could have come out of the option that we didn’t choose. Economists call these opportunity costs.
We know what happens when we calculate an opportunity cost too high. We get a false positive: a bad choice that we thought was great at the time. We hire one of the candidates because they seem awesome, and it turns out that they aren’t. That’s expensive. We spent all this money hiring, training, and compensating this person. The cost of a false positive is visible. We see the time, effort, and money spent on this dud, and it makes our eyeballs twitch.
But what happens when we calculate an opportunity cost too low? When we pass on a candidate who could have created more value than the person we hired? We don’t see the cost of the false negative. Because our miscalculations about the things we didn’t choose are hidden, we don’t think about them. We operate as if they don’t exist.
Back to discussions that happened, and didn’t happen.
The cost to the team of everybody jockeying for air time lies in the hidden void of the discussions that didn’t happen.
If I’m talking, someone else can’t. So I erode the value of the discussion when my blabbing prevents someone else from asking an important question or expressing an overlooked point of view.
When I talk, I’m choosing myself as the speaker over everyone else in the conversation. What if I have chosen myself over someone who could have created more value with that airtime? How much value have I cost the group?
Now imagine it’s a biggish meeting: 7 or 8 people. When I open my mouth, I’m making a bet that what I have to say is the best use of the time of every single person in the room compared to what every single other person in the room might do with that time. How likely is it, that all those people need to hear what I have to say more than they need to do literally anything else?
What a hubristic bet, right?
In the last blog post about listening, I wondered:
Could it be that my replies weren’t always as contributory as I thought they were?
From how many discussions have I hewn away value by opening my mouth ahead of someone with something more valuable to say?
It’s a sobering, humbling question. I recommend taking a moment to consider it.
This question has completely changed my perspective on my goals in a discussion and how to reach them.
If I have convinced you that this question is worth considering, you likely already have some follow-up concerns:
- Why wouldn’t my message have an impact if I fought for air time? How do I know that?
- If my goal in a discussion isn’t to talk, then what is it? And what do I do to achieve it?
- But if I’m not fighting for air time, how do I get to say my piece? If I don’t get to say my piece, how do I deal with the frustration of not being able to express my perspectives?
We’ll address each of these in the upcoming posts of this series. In the meantime, it may be worth considering how you might answer these questions. You’re a different person than I am, and your answers might differ from mine. My hope is some of my answers will be useful to you, but they don’t have to be the same.
When people talk over me in meetings, I usually don’t invest energy in trying to finish what I was saying. I know that, under those conditions, my message isn’t likely to have an impact anyway. I also understand why this happens: folks equate talking with their contribution to the discussion. That’s important because people are evaluated for their individual accomplishments, and individuals credited for the work of teams.
It’s rarer for people to evaluate the outcome of a discussion in comparison to what that outcome could have been. The cost to the team of everybody jockeying for air time lies in the hidden void of the discussions that didn’t happen.
When I talk, I’m choosing myself as the speaker over everyone else in the conversation. What if I have chosen myself over someone who could have created more value with that airtime?
This question has completely changed my perspective on my goals in a discussion and how to reach them. We’ll talk about those goals in the next post.
If you liked this piece, you might also like:
The rest of the listening series
This piece about writing informative programming texts
This post about outlining a talk (specifically a tech talk)