Introduction to comm lag – conversation magic!

Credit: I was introduced to the concept of comm lag by Ted Madry Andrew Smith, who are phenomenal social dance teachers.  You can keep up with Andrew at Life of a Southpaw.

Since then I’ve led numerous workshops, roundtables and excitable debates on the subject, and the concept has become so entwined with the management of my day to day life that I feel like a hard copy is worth putting out there for people to refer to. So whether you’re coming here having already talked about this with me, or whether you just want to try out my favourite way of improving your conversation/social interaction, this is a casually transcribed version of my introduction to comm lag. Enjoy!

What is comm lag?

Comm lag is the time it takes to parse and respond to communicated information. When someone asks a question, some people will reply almost instantly, where others will take a certain amount of time. The longer it takes, the longer your comm lag.

Obviously this will depend hugely on context: you’ll generally be able to respond quicker to “How are you?” than to “What were the five most significant moments of your life between the ages of 3 and 10?”… although people with fast comm lag will still usually answer both questions much more quickly.

Additionally, some people (in some contexts) will have negative comm lag: they feel as if they’ve understood what’s being said, and will respond before the speaker has finished. Sometimes this is more successful than others but, as with all ranges of speeds, none of this is prescriptively good or bad.

Even just given those three pieces of information, you probably already have some idea of whether you have fast or slow comm lag, or you already know some situations that can effect your speed. If you don’t feel like you know your own comm lag, or you want to give it a chance to appear, I’ll be adding some exercises shortly that you can try out. You also might have an idea of how your comm lag speed affects how you interact with other people, and how they interpret you, because comm lag can look like a lot of other things, which leads it to carry both positive and negative associations.

Wait a second, why is this on a DANCE blog???

Because dancing is communication. Because I’m passionately involved with the world of social dance, which leads me to think about socialising in general. Because dancers talk to each other. Because improvisation is a place where comm lag can manifest… and it can be a place where people can interact with a totally different comm lag style. Because as a dancer I have found comm lag to be useful, relevant and interesting to my practice. Because comm lag can be danced.

What is comm lag NOT?

Comm lag is not the same as introversion or extroversion, although I’m fairly sure there is some statistical correlation. What is definitely true is that we respond differently to individuals with fast and slow comm lag, and this can push them into particular social roles… roles they might not be best suited to or most comfortable occupying.

Traits associated with different types of comm lag:

Using a particular speed of comm lag can give an impression of your character. From group discussions, those impressions can be grouped as follows:

Positive Traits Negative Traits
Slow Comm lag Empathetic, attentive, understanding, respectful, community-focused. Slow, stupid, unfocussed, disinterested.
Fast Comm lag Smart, good leaders, enthusiastic, in-synch, capable. Brash, over-eager, disrespectful of groups.
Negative Comm lag Intimate…. fast comm lag x10. Arrogant, dismissive, bored.

The above may be true… or they may be how you are read regardless of your intention if you tend strongly towards a particular response speed. I have extremely fast comm lag, combined with an academic/articulate speaking style, so it’s very very easy for me to come across as butting in, taking over, and not really caring about what anyone else has to say. I also know that I’m likely to jump in and respond to questions or problems, even when others in the conversation are far more capable of answering, or more qualified to do so.

For my friends with slower comm lag, the opposite is true. Leadership opportunities, interview situations, and task management are socially geared towards people with faster comm lag. If someone jumps in before you have time to process, often you won’t get a say, and people assume you didn’t have anything to contribute. You come across as shy or anxious when you want to be social, and people think you need extra support when all you need is extra time.

So what can I do?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that there are some good reasons to try and even out the comm lag divide. At the same time, comm lag is not something you do AT other people, it’s your particular comfort zone within a conversation. It’s much easier for people with fast comm lag to slow down than it is for people with slow comm lag to speed up, but speaking from experience it’s uncomfortable and somewhat frustrating… so what are some strategies that don’t require people to make long term changes to their speech?

For everybody:

  • Make your comm lag explicit. “I’m jumping really fast – I love what you’re saying, but can I check that you’re finished?” “I tend to take a minute to process, can you give me that time?” If people know what’s going on, it’s easer to accommodate it, and less likely to be read poorly.
  • Pick a comfortable medium. Technology is a great way of letting people take the time they need to respond. If it’s important to have a conversation, re-route it to a medium that suits the speeds of everyone involved.

For slow comm-laggers

  • State your intention to answer by repetition or affirmation. “That’s a great question…. let me see… ok, here’s what I think.”
  • Ask for what you need. “I’m really excited about this topic, but I need a second to process, can you come back to me?”
  • Gesture. Nod, “hmmm”, lean in… show that you’re engaged and with a conversation.

Fast comm-laggers

Sorry guys, you probably have more work to do. In part because slowing down is much easier than speeding up, but also in part because I’m writing from the position of a fast comm-lagger, and I’m much more able to come up with things that seem to work for me.

  • Multi-task. Take notes, do your hair, look salient points up on google… give yourself practical, useful reasons to wait until the end of sentences or slow down your processing speed.
  • Validate. Remind yourself of the value of the person speaking, and the fact that they have a viewpoint different to yours. Obtain it…. all of it.
  • Invite. Use your speed to the advantage of others in a group by directing the conversation towards those with slower comm lag. If you’re going to grab the ball, make sure everyone gets to play.
  • Keep a tally. How often have you been the first to answer? How often have you heard other people speak? Should you do something about it?

What you shouldn’t do, is stress about it. For one thing, stress will probably exaggerate your comm lag in the direction it already tends. If I’m anxious I chitter like a hamster on caffeine (it’s TERRIBLE,) but you might just as easily end up freezing like a rabbit in the headlights. I like to talk about comm lag not only because I think it helps conversations better, but because it helps people understand me. I know that when people ask me to slow down, they really ARE talking about my conversation speed, and not implying anything about my attitude or character. I’m also hugely touched when my friends notice my own efforts to slow down for them, or when we can mutually appreciate the satisfaction of an explosive, perpetually interrupting bricolage of ideas.

Conclusion

As I said originally, this article is usually presented as a discussion, with opportunity for everyone participating to join in and talk about how they experience comm lag, and ways that it can work for them. It can be role-played and tried out physically. Hopefully everyone can come away feeling like they picked up some useful information. To that end, I welcome all commentary on this post… of course, in your own time.

p.s. If you’re interested in having an in-person discussion/conversation/facilitated workshop on comm lag, please use the links about to get in touch.