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Culture Change


Chris Harrison

March 6, 2024

Ten months after the WHO declared the COVID pandemic over, we’re all living with the digital transformation it stimulated. There have been some changes in working behaviours but I’m not convinced that a positive ‘new normal’ has yet been defined.

I’m sure you’ve been in online meetings where one or two individuals seem to dominate the conversation. Often, they’re not doing it because they are in a position of responsibility or have expert opinions to express. Instead, the proverb: ‘empty vessels make the most noise’ seems to ring true.

People who can’t stop talking in certain situations are a subject of scientific interest. Linguists call them conversational narcissists, talkaholics or over-communicators. They produce small talk in such large, liquid doses that their long-suffering audiences worry they have verbal diarrhoea. The psychological term for this is logorrhea.  It’s a behaviour often associated with states of mania, anxiety, agitation, or a need to express anguish that leads individuals to talk non-stop without considering the impact on others. People with logorrhea may have a compulsive and disordered way of talking, often jumping from one topic to another without coherence. But I don’t think mania is what we’re seeing in video calls.  Let’s just call them talkaholics - I’m sure a number of your colleagues spring immediately to mind!

Talkaholics tend to consider themselves conversationally competent, but usually lack a few of the elemental skills that make for engaging interaction and willing participants. One is an understanding of the basic requirement of a story: something should happen. Another is the need for more editing. Their stories are told with mind-numbingly inessential details, useless digressions, and self-interruptions to fuss about accuracy. In business meetings, these stories are very often attempts to excuse non-performance. Above all, they lack empathy, an emotional intelligence skill that would enable them to reflect on their listeners’ experience and adjust the way they are speaking.

Virtual settings compound the problem because human behaviour changes, making it harder to speak up without interrupting others. The lack of non-verbal cues like gaze awareness can result in individuals speaking over each other or not speaking at all. In this environment, the talkaholic can be very disruptive.

The solution lies in call hosts becoming better chair people. Here, the established behaviours of the analogue age can be useful. Open the meeting with cameras on, and engage each person as a human being before the business starts. A meeting that begins with smiles tends to go better. Display the agenda frequently, and check in with everyone when you conclude each point. Encourage concise contributions and have a way to signal to talkaholics that their time is up.