Listening in the midst of turn sharks

Conferences are a unique listening opportunity, especially for those of us who regularly stand on the speaking side of the podium. Sitting in the audience at a conference presentation lets us experience and reflect on our own listening: are we perhaps just as distracted as those we complain about when we have the podium? If we tune out for just a moment, how hard is it to reintegrate into the speaker’s flow of ideas?

Flickr/Magnus Brath
Flickr/Magnus Brath

Being in the audience also gives us the social experience of listening. Listening and learning are not merely acts of individual will; our perception and comprehension are affected by the acts of those around us trying to do the same thing. There are some interesting social aspects of social listening I have learned about since starting this blog—for example, “turn sharks.”

I first read about turn sharks in Frederick Erickson’s book Talk and Social Theory. The phrase describes aggressive behavior during conversational turns—basically, interrupting someone else’s turn to speak and taking over. When there is a potential opportunity to speak, turn sharks circle the conversation opportunistically. They look for weaknesses in the speaker or pauses that would allow them to break in. If the turn shark thinks he or she can make the point better or has a related point that simply must be heard in tandem with what is being said, the shark raises a hand, uses nonverbal cues to enter the conversation, and sometimes just starts talking.

Turn sharks can be just a very strong version of what speakers want and what listeners in the audience need—that is, other actively engaged members of the audience. And a turn shark may be so aggressive because he or she really does have the most relevant or efficient thing to say. The speaker may wish to use such comments to advance the conversation.

But sometimes the turn shark begins to dominate, or to direct a conversation away from the speaker’s goals. To manage the dynamic, a speaker can try several strategies:

  • Demonstrate comfort with pauses and silence.
  • Listen receptively to each audience member’s comment, reinforcing that person’s autonomy as the speaker.
  • “Listen” visually by scanning the entire room to see who has a hand up, rather than opting for volunteer with the most aggressive body language.
  • Actively engage others in the audience by explicitly giving them a turn to speak.
  • Use a method such as a “talking stick” to reinforce who has the floor.
  • Protect audience members who have been targeted by a turn shark, returning the conversational focus back to them.

For single-session meetings such as at conferences, where the audience mixes and reconstitutes for each individual session, turn sharks may be as nomadic and unpredictable as real sharks. For ongoing social situations where the same audience comes together over time—such as, for example, in a class—conversation leaders may need to institute more structured conversational customs to let the sharks have their say while keeping others out of their jaws.

Here are a few questions for listeners and for speakers reflecting on the group dynamics when they involve the audience:

  • If you have been a member of an audience that included a turn shark, how did you react? How did the turn of conversation affect your listening?
  • If you yourself have been a turn shark, what was your motivation? How did you insert yourself into the conversation, and what was the impact on the group?
  • If you have led a single-session meeting that included one or more turn sharks, how did you handle the conversational flow?
  • If you have lead a multi-session group that included one or more turn sharks, how did you handle the conversational flow?

Many thanks to Emory Law Professor Barbara Bennett Woodhouse for feedback on this post.

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