We’ve all been stuck in conversations in which it feels like we’re talking to a wall.
“Why isn’t he asking me any questions?” we may grumble to ourselves. “Why are they forcing me to carry this conversation?” we may silently judge.
A recent essay from a researcher who studies conversations offers a fascinating possible answer as to why these frustrating interactions happen.
Post-doctoral research scholar Adam Mastroianni of Columbia Business School explained in an essay published on Substack that there are two types of conversationalists: You can be either a “giver” or a “taker,” and these types don’t always assume the best of each other.
“Givers think that conversations unfold as a series of invitations; takers think conversations unfold as a series of declarations. When giver meets giver or taker meets taker, all is well,” Mastroianni wrote. “When giver meets taker, however, giver gives, taker takes, and giver gets resentful (‘Why won’t he ask me a single question?’) while taker has a lovely time (‘She must really think I’m interesting!’) or gets annoyed (‘My job is so boring, why does she keep asking me about it?’).”
In other words, givers typically end up asking more questions in a conversation, because they believe that’s how to foster the best conversation, while takers believe it’s best to make more declarative statements to ramp up the conversation to its most interesting place.
How to really tell if you are a giver or a taker.
Beyond the differences between inviting and declaring, there are other telltale signs that can help you determine if you are giving or taking.
One is how you feel when there are silences in a conversation, Mastroianni told HuffPost. “Givers feel like ‘Oh no, I’ve done something wrong,’” when there are conversational lulls, he said, while takers believe “someone should make something happen” and that that person is them.
Emily Rosado-Solomon, an assistant professor of management at Babson College who researches workplace communications, read the essay and said she buys Mastroianni’s explanation of givers and takers ― and whether or not you are a giver or taker could also be culturally specific, citing the late social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s research on individualism and collectivism.
“People from cultures with very low individualism are probably not going to be as likely to take the spotlight and talk about themselves; they are probably going to be more givers, whereas people from cultures with very high individualism are probably much more likely to talk about themselves,” she said.
Being a giver or a taker can matter a lot at your job.
Once you start seeing conversations in terms of givers and takers, you can start to see how it matters in workplaces, too.
Rosado-Solomon said that because all of us carry different cultural perspectives, “What is most important in the workplace specifically is being ambidextrous so that you can communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds.” People have a universal need to feel seen.
She said she can switch between taking and giving styles at work depending on the needs of her conversation partner.
“If asking questions makes that person feel seen, then that is what I will do. I am genuinely curious about other people, which is why I spend my life studying people at work,” she said. “But at the same time, some people are uncomfortable with that, and it becomes an awkward interview inquisition and so I find that I try to switch then to more disclosure and sort of a taker style. And not necessarily intimate disclosure, just sort of taking the pressure off of them.”
Mastroianni said he also sees the giver-taker dynamic come into play when more junior employees are speaking with senior staff.
“Typically, if you’re in the low-power position, you’re going to have to be the one giving, because basically you have more of a reason to talk to the high-power person than the high-power person has to talk to you,” he said. “If you approach that interaction purely in the taking sense, then it might end very quickly. If you don’t invite their participation, they might go do something else, because it’s like, ‘OK we’re done here.’”
Of course, employees in positions of power should be aware of that dynamic and do more giving, too. That’s only fair.
Mastroianni said when he finds himself in the higher-status role, he knows “it’s very easy for me to just let them ask me questions.” He tries instead to take responsibility for keeping up the conversation by either asking the other person questions as well, or giving them something to respond to.
“Neither givers nor takers have it completely right.”
Mary Abbajay, president of Careerstone Group, a leadership development consultancy, agreed that it’s important for any leader to “learn to be a little bit more of a giver, which is really making sure that they are inviting conversation and then that they are listening.”
She noted that the givers-and-takers framework could also relate to how introverts and extroverts clash in the workplace.
“In meetings, the introverts tend to get talked over because the extroverts tend to be takers and they have rapid-fire conversation, but that doesn’t leave space for the introvert to respond,” she said. That’s why it’s important for work meetings to accommodate both styles and for leaders to be in charge of making that happen.
Could gender also play a role? When I asked Mastroianni, he noted he did not have empirical data on the question, but he said he would bet $100 that if people completed a giver-and-taker questionnaire, women would be more likely to be givers, and men would be takers.
“Part of that could be reflected in the power dynamics in society and part of that could be reflected in who do we take our cues from when we are growing up, and who do we learn from in terms of how to talk, who do we listen to.”
Abbajay said she believes women are more likely to be givers at their jobs as a survival mechanism to meet gendered giving expectations.
“Science and research shows that women are often talked over more in the workplace. They’re often mansplained. When you get mansplained, you’re not going to speak up very much,” she said. “I do think women tend to be more givers than takers, and I think a lot of that is based in gender bias in the workplace.”
Neither a giver or taker is inherently bad. But to be a more thoughtful speaker and listener, you need to be self-aware.
Regardless of whether you think you have the heart of a giver or a taker, you can learn from the other side.
That’s because neither givers nor takers have it completely right. Takers misunderstand that their “declarations” aren’t guaranteed to be interesting, while givers misunderstand that asking questions is not always the most generous thing you can do in a conversation — and can, at times, be exhausting.
As Mastroianni put it in his essay, “It’s easy to remember how lonely it feels when a taker refuses to cede the spotlight to you, but easy to forget how lovely it feels when you don’t want the spotlight and a taker lets you recline on the mezzanine while they fill the stage.”
Both sides can learn to be aware of “conversational affordances,” he explained in the essay, which are opportunities to help keep the conversation moving forward in an exciting and engaging way.
In practice, for takers, this could mean they ask more questions that the other person would be actually interested to answer. That way, the conversation gets closer to the unexpected, interesting, fun and weird places of how someone really feels and thinks, he said.
And if you’re a giver who finds yourself being steamrolled by a taker, try toning down the questions and playing the taker’s game of responding, Mastroianni suggested. “Sometimes there are fun conversations that can be had that way, because you put less pressure on yourself to be like, ‘Oh, the conversation succeeds because I am pushing it.’”
Being a giver who starts to take more is a way to test the strength of your relationships, too.
“Give them the thing that they are giving. That’s what they deserve. Then you’ll be able to tell the difference between someone who intends to be a generous taker and someone who is a taker because they are selfish,” Mastroianni said.
And if a taker continuously keeps ignoring your cues to share, that may be your sign to leave the conversation “and speak to somebody else,” he added.