Knowing When to Say Nothing
The surprising benefits of conversational turn-taking.
Posted Sep 01, 2018
In an anonymous letter to The Nation in 1876 commenting on the state of philosophy teaching in American colleges, William James described the study of philosophy as “the habit of always seeing an alternative, of not taking the usual for granted, of making conventionalities fluid again, of imagining foreign states of mind” (James, 1920). Referencing the quick-witted court jester from As You Like It, James continued:
"Touchstone's question, 'Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?' will never cease to be one of the tests of a wellborn nature. It says, 'Is there space and air in your mind, or must your companions gasp for breath whenever they talk with you?'"
Is there space and air in your mind, or must your companions gasp for breath whenever they talk with you? This is a question not just for students of philosophy, but for all of us who want to have more productive conversations, whether they be in the home, the classroom, the workplace, or the public square.
While for most of us talking comes as naturally as breathing, the practice of open and constructive dialogue — an act of “imagining foreign states of mind” — does not. Fortunately, research on “conversational turn-taking” and “wait time” points to one thing we can do to improve just about any conversation: just wait. The simple act of abiding in silence before another speaks can contribute to language development in children, learning among students, and problem solving by teams.
Waiting for children to speak
You probably would not need a developmental psychologist to tell you that early exposure to language is critical to the development of verbal abilities in children. What may be less obvious is the difference between talking to and talking with a child. But it appears that gains in language and literacy skills have less to do with the quantity of words heard by a child than the dialogic quality of the talk. The best predictor of verbal ability is not the amount of words, but the amount of conversation that a child experiences, turn-taking interactions in which the child is afforded the space and time to speak and receive feedback from others (Zimmerman et al, 2009).
It is well established that language exposure varies substantially by socioeconomic status. Influential work in the 1990s (Hart & Risley, 1995) popularized the notion of the “30-million-word gap” — the idea that by the age of 3, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have heard 30 million fewer words than more advantaged children. However, as found in a 2017 study of 3- to 6-year-olds published in Psychological Science, what explains the gap in language abilities is conversation, not parents’ income or education as such. As one of the authors put it, “[t]urn-taking occurs more often in families from a higher socioeconomic status, but children coming from families with lesser income or parental education showed the same benefits from conversational turn-taking.” All young people stand to benefit from speaking their minds. But it takes time, and it takes timing.
Waiting for students to speak
The need for conversation does not cease at the age of 6. The science educator Mary Budd Rowe pioneered the study of what she called “wait time” and its effects on students and instructors from elementary to undergraduate levels. Summarizing 20 years of research, Rowe wrote in a classic 1986 paper that most verbal interactions between teachers and students take place at “astonishing speed” (p. 44): “when teachers ask questions of students, they typically wait 1 second or less for the students to start a reply; after the student stops speaking, they begin their reaction or proffer the next question in less than 1 second” (p. 43).
Just as astonishing, when instructors increase these wait times to three seconds or more — the threshold for positive effects turns out to be 2.7 seconds — a number of dramatic changes in students’ attitudes and behavior result, including increases (between 300 and 700 percent) in the length of student responses; increases in the number of questions and unprompted contributions by students; the use of evidence and argument to support claims; the incidence of peer-to-peer interactions (in contrast to student-to-teacher interactions); student confidence, as reflected in fewer inflected or hesitant responses; and student performance on cognitively complex tasks.
Paradoxically, the very dynamics that motivate many teachers to tolerate no more than 0.9 seconds of silence — the possibility of embarrassing non-responses or “I don’t know”s and the loss of classroom “control,” necessitating disciplinary intervention — are made worse by rapid-fire questioning, not better.
Deliberately increasing wait times also has salutary effects on teacher attitudes and behavior, in the form of more cohesive and constructive development of ideas over a series of utterances, more questions that respond to previous student contributions by probing for clarification or elaboration, and more equitable expectations across a group of students (interestingly, Rowe repeatedly found that teachers who were inattentive to their wait times gave slightly more time to those students they considered to be among the top five performers in the class — potentially a perniciously self-fulfilling expectation).
Waiting for colleagues to speak
In addition to evidence that people in non-academic and professional contexts don’t ask as many questions as their interlocutors would like them to, there is some evidence that the performance of teams in solving intellectual problems is linked with well-timed talk. In two studies reported in Nature (Woolley et al., 2010), groups of two to five people were asked to perform a diverse set of cognitive tasks collaboratively. The performance of the groups on these tasks was not strongly correlated with the average or maximum cognitive ability of the individual members, but instead with the average social sensitivity of group members, the proportion of females in the group, and the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.
Relatedly, Moshman and Geil (1998) found that groups generally outperformed individuals in correctly executing the famous Wason selection task — an exercise in the logic of hypothesis-testing — not because they mirrored the solution hit upon by one incisive member, but because they co-constructed a solution together by listening to and questioning each others’ contributions. There is good reason to think that we can be smarter together, but only if we give each other a chance to think and speak.
The next time you present your companion with a question or receive a response, before speaking, take a breath of your own — and wait.
Brooks, A.W., & John, L.K. (2018). Asking better questions. Harvard Business Review, May-June, 60-67.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: P.H. Brookes.
James, H. (Ed.) (1920). The Letters of William James, Vol 1. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press; accessed at Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40307/40307-h/40307-h.htm.
Moshman, D. & Geil, M. (1998). Collaborative reasoning: Evidence for collective rationality. Thinking and Reasoning, 4(3), 231-248.
Rowe, M.B. (1986). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37, 43-50.
Woolley, A.W., Chabris, C.F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., Malone, T.W. (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science, 330(6004), 686-688.
Zimmerman, F. J., Gilkerson, J., Richards, J. A., Christakis, D. A., Xu, D., Gray, S., et al. (2009). Teaching by listening: The importance of adult-child conversations to language development. Pediatrics, 124(1), 342-349.