How 2 Seconds Can Save Your Relationship

Whether we like it or not, most of our decisions are made at a subliminal level. Advertising companies understand and exploit this on a daily basis. For example, a study of supermarket shoppers found that 77% of wine purchased was French when French music was playing over the loud speaker. When the music was switched to German, 73% of the wine bought was German. It’s an uncomfortable truth that our subconscious brain determines the vast majority of our behaviours.

Perhaps no real harm is done in the supermarket example, but the damage can be more lasting in our relationships. Our brain is wired to adopt a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach, meaning that it assumes a defensive posture without consulting our conscious mind. Before we know it – literally –  we feel a flush of irritation, snap at our partner, or interrupt them mid-sentence with a well-aimed ‘Yes, but…’

Once the process of escalation starts, the body clicks into well-rehearsed routine. Emotions rise in intensity, a rush of chemicals are distributed in preparation for a confrontation, and our speech accelerates in speed and volume. If we don’t make a conscious decision to change track we find ourselves, in a matter of seconds, in a destructive blamestorming conversation. And words can hurt. They are like seeds that land in the heart.

So, what can we do to keep our centre of gravity? In 25 years of study, I’ve found that one of the most effective habits for regulating the flow of healthy dialogue is to manage the process of turn-taking, by which we pass the baton between speaker and listener.

Turn-taking may seem absurdly simple. After all, what can be complicated about the idea that one person speaks and then the other person speaks? In fact, the dynamics of turn-taking – the product of 50,000 years of language development – are more finely tuned and gloriously constructed than the gears and springs of a Swiss watch. For example, do you know that your voice goes through a slight change in pitch whenever you’re nearing the end of your speaking turn? Or that you provide subtle eye signals that are picked up by the listener at a subliminal level? This is repeated each and every time the speaker switches.

Because turn-taking operates in the background of our thinking, we don’t give it the conscious attention it deserves. Besides, in our world of stress and time scarcity, even a split second gap between speaker and listener can feel like a luxury. Winston Churchill summed up the prevailing attitude pretty well when he said, ‘Stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you.’ As we adopt the mindset that the only way to get heard is by shouting our opinions through a wall of noise, it’s little wonder employees say that at least a third of work meetings are a waste of time and that political debate is a busted flush.

Here are two habits you can experiment with in every conversation:

  1. Observe the dynamics of turn-taking. For example, notice how you abandon the sacred gap between speaking and listening when emotions start to rise. Since the beauty of ‘noticing’ is that it introduces choice, try allowing the other speaker to finish what they’re saying without interruption and wait for two seconds before you reply. This isn’t easy, because our urge to interrupt can feel overwhelming, but neither is it impossible. Introducing a pause between speakers creates a space for thinking and perspective-taking, and allows people to feel heard. The more strongly you disagree, the more important the pause becomes.
  2. Jointly agree that you’ll respect the value of turn-taking with your colleagues, family and partner. Jony Ive’s creative meetings at Apple are famous for long periods of silence, allowing time for people to think. Such pauses are only possible if people feel confident that they’ll get their opportunity to speak, which makes it easier to listen. Demonstrating the importance of turn-taking can be hardest with the people we love the most, which makes it all the more necessary.

Turn-taking is an ancient practice, built on time-honoured values of respect and reciprocity. In a world in which outrage is all the rage, the health of our relationships may depend on it.



Bögels et al., Neural signatures of response planning, Scientific Reports, 2015.

De Ruiter et al., Projecting the End of a Speaker’s Turn, Linguistic Society of America, 2005.

Holler et al., Turn-Taking in Human Communicative Interaction, Frontiers in Psychology, 2015.

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