The Myth of “Natural Flow”

Why we can’t pretend “just talking” will not be oppressive

What is natural flow and what are its effects?

  • Males talk for longer and make more frequent contributions than females in formal contexts. (1), (2)
  • Men interrupt more often, especially when the conversation partner is a woman, and even when the woman is in a position of power. (3)
  • Lack of information: fewer people speaking means less information on the table.
  • Lack of empowerment: a team member who tends to be more silent (for whatever reason) will see their own ideas represented less.
  • Too much focus on process: a group that does not have an agreed-upon process leaves the management of turn-taking to the whole group. Linguistically, turn-taking is often managed with non-verbal markers — like, for instance, the audible sound of breathing in that marks that someone wants to speak or disagrees. Managing turn-taking takes away attention from content.
  • Lack of listening: in natural flow, people tend to prepare their next interruption, or they will be occupied being upset that they have been cut off — all while deep listening could be happening.

What we’re up against: systems

  • Having a turn and passing is entirely different from not having been asked. Having heard a team member’s voice, getting a feel for where they are, knowing that they are not sitting on something they would like to say — all these bits of information help us stay united as a team.
  • Some groups use natural flow and then periodically ask the silent people for their opinion. Although I highly appreciate the sentiment, I do not enjoy the inherent assumption of power difference. Being perfect equals in a round is different from the more assertive people inviting the introverts’ voices in. Hear everyone from the get-go instead of spending most of your meeting time on the extroverts’ ideas only.
See more about rounds and many intentional patterns and systems, including examples of what to say, in our new book Many voices, one song.
  • Janet Holmes. (1992). Women’s Talk in Public Contexts. Discourse and Society. Volume: 3 issue: 2, page(s): 131–150, Issue published: April 1, 1992. (perm link
  • Smith-Lovin, Lynn and Brody, Charles (1989), Interruptions in Group Discussions. The effects of gender and group composition. American Sociological Review. Vol 54, 424–435.
  • Kunsman, Peter (2000). Gender, Status and Power in Discourse Behavior of Men and Women. Linguistik online 5 1/00.
  • Cutler, Anne and Scott, Donia R (1990), Speaker sex and perceived apportionment of talk. Applied Psycholinguistics 11 (1990), 253–272
  • Kirkpatrick, Jessica (2014). Stop interrupting me. Gender Conversation Dominance, and Listener Bias. Link:
  • Rudman, Laurie A and Glick, Peter (2001). Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes and Backlash toward agentive women. Journal of Social Issues. Volume 57, Issue 4, Winter 2001, 743–762.
  • Karpowitz, Christopher F. and Mendelberg, Tali and Shaker, Lee. 2012. Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation. American Political Science Review, Available on CJO doi:10.1017/S0003055412000329



Sociocracy, Non-Violent Communication, Linguistics

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