Conversation Navigation

Conversation Navigation

Weaving my way through Penn Station recently, I was struck with the similarities between the ways people move through a crowd and the ways they move through a conversation.

In the train station, everyone presumably has a goal, but the strategies for reaching them vary. There are the Single-Minded who push forward with enough vigor that anyone in their oncoming lane knows instinctively to leap out of their way. There is no slowing down to accommodate someone else’s unexpected direction change. Collisions seem to be miraculously averted, and also unnoticed, except by those who stumble over themselves to avoid getting trampled.

There are the Artful Dodgers who don’t actually stop or even appear to slow down, but they move like ribbons through the traffic. Skillfully they anticipate other moves on the field and make adjustments in their stride or direction, leaning forward or back, left or right, slightly altering their positions to allow for the unending, unpredictable variety of movement they encounter.

There are the Wanderers who might seem to be in the wrong place, as they appear not to notice or care that almost everyone else is moving as though they intend to actually get somewhere. A full out stop to attend to whatever catches their attention is not unusual, nor is a leisurely, unsignaled lane change.

And, of course, there are the majority of folks who combine something from each of these crowd navigation styles, making adjustments according to their needs and the perceived needs of those around them. Not always altruistic these adjustments- sometimes we make adjustments for someone else so that we can get where we want to be without getting whacked in the process. I think good conversationalists, like good crowd navigators, know how to combine their needs with the needs of the other in order to arrive safely.