How to Control a Conversation

I had always believed that statement to be true. We see it all the time — at networking events, bars, and especially now in political debates. Whoever is louder, more verbose, and more theatrical dominates. Points are given to those who put on a show.
But as a person who values curiosity, dialogue, and a healthy exchange of diverse perspectives, I’ve often wondered if this had to be the case. Is there anything we can do when a conversation feels unbalanced, other than sitting there and nod quietly until the whole spectacle is over? Is there a way to regain control?
It turns out, there is. After attending hundreds of networking events and co-founding two tech startups that help people connect with one another, I learned a social tactic that can quickly redistribute the power in any conversation. I call it cognitive incision.
A cognitive incision is a way to reshape a conversation simply by asking a question. Not just any question, though. A question that cuts through the bullshit. Think of the word “incision” itself — in surgery, it means to cut into something, usually flesh. It is precise, clean, and effective.
Let me give an example. Andrew Sobel, author of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others, said in a video that he was once on the phone with a client who “wouldn’t stop his angry denunciations of a group of people in his organization.” Finally, Sobel interrupted with a question. He asked the client to talk about the change he wanted those managers to make. “It transformed the discussion from a negative rant to a positive conversation,” Sobel said. That’s the cognitive incision.

Here’s another example courtesy of the Downton Abbey character Dowager Countess, who uses well-timed wit and punchy questions to bring a halt to opinions she finds irrelevant. Once, when the family dined around the dinner table, her son Matthew Crawley announced he was getting a job. To the Dowager, the notion of a job was a foreign “middle-class” concept, inappropriate for royalty aristocracy, so when Matthew mentions that he will be available on weekends, the Dowager inserts a cleverly disguised cognitive incision, “What is a ‘weekend’?” to reset the conversation.

You might use a cognitive incision in a group setting. You’ve probably noticed how when your boss is around, your coworkers get a bit more chatty. People tend to speak more when they’re nervous or trying to impress, and it can be difficult to get a word in. This scenario is ripe for a cognitive incision. If someone is monopolizing the conversation, lob a question over to the boss directly or to someone else in the group, asking for their take on the topic at hand (“Yes, that’s interesting, Steve, but Danielle, I’m curious what your thoughts are on this.”) The boss will not only notice your thoughtfulness, but also your assertiveness.

This redirecting question functions as a dangling carrot in front of the speaker. The speaker has three options: 1) continue speaking as they were, ignoring your question; 2) respond to the question, or 3) listen to others speak. In the first two cases, whether the speaker outright ignores the question or usurps the floor once again, they appear aloof, avoidant, or domineering — none of which look good in the eyes of viewers. The third option is best, as people begin to realize that hearing only one person’s opinion on everything becomes old quickly.

To use cognitive incision, you must listen closely to the speaker, track their statements, and predict where they are going. The sharpness of your question is absolutely crucial. It cannot be simplistic, easily dismissed, or nominal. It should be relevant and well-timed. Maybe humorous. It should go off like a curiosity detonator in people’s minds.

What studying cognitive incision has taught me is that you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to be influential. You don’t have to talk over people to be perceived as powerful. You don’t have to monopolize the conversation to appear important. In fact, the opposite is true — Harvard researchers found across three studies “a robust and consistent relationship between question-asking and liking: people who ask more questions are better liked by their conversation partners.”

So it doesn’t matter how often you speak, how many stories you tell, or how many laughs you get. What matters, what is truly powerful, are authentic questions. It’s what leads to an interesting, balanced, and dynamic conversation with diverse perspectives. And it ensures that loud-voiced extroverts don’t dominate the discussion.

But if they do, you know what to do.

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