Are You a Conversational Bully? Check Your Score

Conversational Bullying

We usually don’t think about bullying in terms of conversations between people who care for each other. Yet, a conversational bully causes disengagement between people who say they love each other.

Who is a Conversational Bully?

I was asked to mediate an interaction between a caregiver and her husband. He was adamant about wanting to do an extensive European trip. His wife was concerned he wasn’t physically capable of doing it.

Although I expected to hear opposing positions, what I heard was progressive monologues by the husband.

Whenever his wife tried to interrupt to make a point or ask for clarification, he responded with “I’m not done yet,” or “Let me finish my sentence.” Despite finishing his sentence, his utterances dragged on. When his wife would again attempt to interrupt, he became annoyed and repeated, "I said I'm not done!" After listening to their interaction for thirty minutes I would score the “discussion” 28 minutes of talking time by the husband, two minutes attempting to enter the conversation by his wife.

As a speech-language pathologist for thirty years I analyzed interactions between parents and children and interactions between adults before the term “conversational bullying” was created. “Conversational bullying” is a term used when one person in an interaction won’t allow the other person to engage in a dialogue.

What you hear are progressive monologues from the same person.

A Strategy With Unintended Consequences

Conversational bullying is thought by some people to be a strategy for convincing another person about the correctness of their position, as it was for the husband. In his mind, the longer he directed the conversation, the more likely it would be his wife would accept his position.

Not relinquishing talking time is thought to be an effective way of wearing down the other person’s resistance to accepting a position. While it may eventually work (it didn’t for the husband), the cost is enormous to the relationship.

The strategy says I don’t care what you think, I’m going to monopolize our time together to make a point. If it’s used a few times the effects may be negligible. However, with repeated uses relationships are destroyed. Why would anyone wish to become closer or retain a positive relationship with anyone who was that disrespectful of your needs?

A Test For Determining If You Are a Conversational Bully

Most people who are conversational bullies don’t even realize it. Here’s a simple procedure to determine if you fit into the category.

1. Tape record a short session of you interacting with someone you love.

2. Time each segment of your speech and your partner’s.

3. Compare the number of segments each of you have.

4. Determine the average length of your utterances and those of your partner’s.

Analyzing the Data

The most positive interactions are ones that have two features. The average number and speaking times for both conversational partners is roughly the same and a true dialogue occurs. A dialogue occurs when one person says something and the other directly comments on it. An example of a dialogue would be person "A" says, “Yesterday was very difficult. I just didn’t have the energy to walk up the stairs.” Person “B” comments, “That’s terrible. It must have scared you.” Person “B” is saying, I’m sorry for what you experienced.

An example of progressive monologues would be person “A” says “Yesterday was very difficult. I just didn’t have the energy to walk up the stairs.”  Person “B” responds “You won't believe what happened in the supermarket yesterday.” Person “B’s” comments have nothing to do with the feelings his partner expressed. He's saying your fears are not important enough for me to comment on.

Changing Conversational Styles and Relationships

Doing whatever is necessary to prevail in an argument or direct the course of a discussion has unintended consequences: you may win the battle but you’ll lose the war. The results from communication research are unequivocal. Communication bullying has limited positive effectiveness and long-term negative consequences.

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