Do You Use These Conversation Stoppers?

Have you ever considered you can stop a conversation without saying a word?

Whether you know it or not, you have probably done so on more than one occasion. In fact, we all have.

Your body language or facial expressions probably won’t be as obvious as it is in the image.  In fact, to the outside observer it may even seem like you are still in a conversation. It might appear to the speaker that they are talking and you are listening. You might even think you are listening.

However, while you may be hearing the words as they are spoken, unless you are sincerely giving consideration to anything being said you are not actually listening.

It doesn’t matter whether you intended to stop the conversation or not.

And it doesn’t matter whether people are still speaking.

The conversation, for all practical purposes, is indeed over.

Why does this matter? 

Because failing to be aware of how you might be stopping a conversation while it appears to continue can be very costly in terms of BOTH relationships AND progress.

Yet in the moment you might be completely unaware of what is happening.  The behaviors I am about to point out happen so automatically for most of us that they are often a blind spot.

The good news is awareness of a blind spot is the first step in eliminating it.   Once you are aware of it, and clear about the cost of continuing the behavior (or at least failing to recognize it in yourself or others and interrupt it), you have a choice.  Until you are aware of these particular blind spots and choose to do something about them, they are likely to continue to inhibit relationships and progress at best and damage them at worst.

There are a number of thought patterns that can stop a conversation in its tracks. I call these “conversation stoppers”.  You might also refer to them as communication blind spots.  They are some of the key impediments to effective communication.

Below are the 3 most common “Conversation Stoppers”.

As you read through them consider which one(s) might be a blind spot for you.

1. I Know

“I Know That” is one of the biggest barriers to effective communication. You don’t even need to say the words. As soon as you start thinking “I already know that” or “I know better than they do” or any variation on the theme, listening has ceased. Unfortunately in that moment so has the opportunity to understand, discover or learn anything that could make a difference.  When you “know” there is no room for another person to make a meaningful contribution to you.

In that moment, while it may be appropriate to dispel your knowledge, be aware that a conversation in which any 2-way exchange of information will occur has ceased.  You may need to openly say that so the other person shifts their expectations or they are likely to experience being held hostage by a lecture.

2. I Am Right

If you are right there is only one option for the person speaking – they must be wrong. If further words are exchanged there is only one likely outcome: an argument or debate for which there is a winner and a loser. With attention on winning it is unlikely anything of value will be exchanged, unless, of course, you consider winning to be valuable.

Otherwise, by default you leave feeling like the “victor” and the other person likely leaves less than satisfied and perhaps even feeling diminished or dismissed.  If you notice you are being right about something, the best thing to do is own it out loud so you can start listening again.  Or you could go on pretending to listen.  Your choice.

3. What They Are Saying is of No Value

Explaining why this is a conversation stopper is probably not necessary. When this happens though, it is useful to consider if you have made this assessment of the person or simply of what they are saying on this occasion.

If it is an assessment of the person there is probably not much they can say that would be of value to you. If the choice to no longer interact with this person is not an option, then you have some work to do to discover something of value they can offer. This requires you to consider they do have a contribution to make and to choose to be curious about what that could be. The alternative is to keep tolerating and/or dismissing them.  While that may be the easier or even the preferred choice, consider the potential cost and choose.

On the other hand, if you value the person, just not what they are talking about in this moment, there is one simple way to restart the conversation… ASK A QUESTION!

Get curious about what could be of value. You may simply need to redirect the conversation to help the speaker connect with what is important to you. Or you may find it is time to officially end the conversation. Either way the choice is simple – engage with curiosity or officially end the conversation because it is already over anyway. Why waste everyone’s time?

As I reflect on my own experience being on both sides of these conversation stoppers, it occurs to me that a commitment to being mindfully curious and open may just be a key to effective communication, not to mention a satisfying conversation for all involved.  Besides, if you are going to be in any conversation, why not mine for the gold?

What do you think?

 A special thanks to Dev Ashish Dhiman (@devashishdhiman) for asking the question that prompted this article!


Enter A Comment

Robyn McMaster   |   30 May 2012   |   Reply

Thoughtful article, Susan. It’s straight to the point and right on.

Susan Mazza   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Robyn. Always nice to see you here!

Steve Borek   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

Marshall Goldsmith, one of my mentors, says to eliminate 3 words from your vocabulary.


Each word says to the other person “I disagree with you.”

Try going a day without uttering NBH. An hour even.

Susan Mazza   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

Awesome Steve – thanks for sharing these words to eliminate. Our language definitely matters – those words are great clues that we are caught in one of these conversation stoppers.

Jay Forte   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

Great post. I just finished teaching a program to a team of sales people called The Art of Questioning – how to ask meaningful questions at every stage of the sales process. What struck me most as I prepared and shared this information is how questions are the core of all information movement and the building block of all great personal and professional relationships. The more we concentrate on asking (AND listening), the stronger we connect with others, the more we learn and the wiser we become. In life, it isn’t about always be right, it is about always being informed because from that informed point we have information to be able to make good decisions. Right and wise are not always the same; I choose wise over right any day.

Susan Mazza   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Jay – love your distinction between right and wise. And I like how you frame the value of questions – “questions are the building block of successful relationships”. Excellent! Sounds like a great course whether you are officially in sales or not.

Jon Mertz   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

Great post, Susan. I think we all have communication blind spots and finding them may be the key. The art of curiosity is what help us find them, meaning we need to have honest conversations with people around us to ensure our communication style is open and encouraging. Thanks! Jon

Susan Mazza   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

“The art of curiosity” – I love that! Thanks for adding your insight Jon.

Rich   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

Great post, Susan!

I just gave a talk to healthcare executives and one of the points I made highlighted some research from UCLA that found that 93% of all communication is non-verbal! So yes, body language will tell us quite a bit about whether someone is in a conversation.

– 7% of all communication are the words we are speaking or writing.
– 38% of all communication is verbal – the tone, diction, speed of our speech.
– 55% of all communication is visual – body language, posture, eye movements.

When communicating we must be mindful of the words we choose, the thoughts we have and our physical appearance/presence.

Susan Mazza   |   01 June 2012   |   Reply

Interesting stats Rich. Thanks for sharing them. Our thoughts seem to be the “lynch-pin” because ultimately that is what drive our choice of words and our body language/presence, often in ways we are not even aware of.

Paul Buzinski   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

Great article, Susan.

Another conversation stopper is interrupting the speaker and changing the subject. This occurs when the “listener” says something like: that reminds me of . . . and then gets off topic.

I believe the key to any successful conservation—and relationship—is when both individuals add value.

Susan Mazza   |   01 June 2012   |   Reply

Interrupting or taking a conversation off track or on another unintended track can definitely stop a productive conversation. Although sometimes the unexpected track of a conversation ends up being the most fruitful of all. My thoughts tend to bounce around and I had to work very hard when I worked in an IT capacity to let my thoughts bounce, but keep my communication on one track or I drove people crazy. Although when I work with more creative types I have more freedom in that regard. Perhaps what is really important is to know your audience and meet them “on their terms” so to speak.

nitish acharya   |   11 June 2012   |   Reply

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