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Duologue: Inattentive Conversing

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

In their book, The Invisible Gorilla, (Harmony 2010) Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris discuss the notion of Inattentional Blindness or how when we are looking at a scene, we may become so focused on one particular aspect of what we are viewing that we miss the other objects or stimuli that are in plain sight. "Inattentional Blindness occurs where attention to one thing causes us to miss what to others may seem to be blindingly obvious. We have a limited ability to focus and attention in one area can distract us from another area."

Well, it seems that we have the same issue in conversing with others. In the August 16, 2014 edition of The Economist, the authors of "You Never Listen to a word I say" report on a study about duologue: "A conversation in which neither party is listening to the other…" The name to such cross-talking was coined by Abraham Kaplan, a philosopher who died in 1993. According to Mr. Kaplan, "duologue" is more than a monologue but not quite the true give and take of a conversation. In short, people are talking at each other without listening to what the other is saying in response so that the conversation is, in essence, incoherent! (Sound familiar?)

Two psychologists, Bruno Galantucci of Yeshiva University in New York and Gareth Roberts of Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut conducted experiments to show that "duologues" really do happen:

They demonstrated this by asking pairs of student volunteers to chat using an instant-messaging program. These volunteers, who had never met, did so sitting in separate rooms. They were given the task of identifying the differences in colour between two versions of a cartoon (each could see only one version). Unbeknown to them, though, another pair were [sic] performing the same task simultaneously, with a different cartoon. While the two conversations were going on, the researchers switched between them so that a student would suddenly and without warning find himself chatting to someone from the other pair. There were four such crossings during the 15-minute experimental period, each lasting 30 seconds. Afterwards the volunteers were debriefed, to establish if they had noticed anything strange about their conversation.

Having repeated the experiment with variations to allow for the fact that students who volunteer for psychology experiments tend to be wary of dirty tricks, Dr. Galantucci and Dr. Roberts reported that between 27% and 42% of participants did not notice that their conversations had been switched. Instead, those participants had simply burbled on regardless. Of course, exchanging instant messages is not quite the same as talking, so the two researchers have not definitively proved that many dialogues are actually duologues. But this research certainly adds to the suspicion that even supposedly purposeful communication often isn’t.

The authors note that the purpose of communication/conversation is to transmit information. Obviously, "duologues" do not succeed in this endeavor. These experiments artfully demonstrate the need to use "active listening" not only to resolve conflicts, but in everyday life; for we do, indeed, negotiate, every single day over the small stuff (a cup of coffee or tea?) as well as the big stuff (should I get married? Settle the lawsuit? Accept the job? Purchase/sell the house/condo?). The art of "active listening" is to truly, completely, and fully listen to what the other is saying , rather than simply half-listening because we are also busy focusing on and formulating our own response to what we think the other person is saying! If we do not truly listen to what the other person is saying, waiting for her to complete her thoughts before we formulate our response and respond, then we will fall into a duologue: a conversation in which two persons are speaking incoherently at each other. Obviously, such a "conversation" gets us nowhere and definitely will not lead to a successful negotiation, even if it is over whether to have cream and/or sugar in your coffee. You may end up with cream in your coffee that you otherwise drink black… or much worse!

… Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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