How to Control a Conversation Without Saying Much at All
When one speaker is monopolizing a discussion, use a tactic called ‘cognitive incision’
For half an hour, my friend and I sat there in the restaurant booth, waiting to talk. To be asked a question. To be acknowledged at all. But the person across from us, another buddy who we were sharing a meal with, completely monopolized the conversation, spewing his thoughts and views and stories in monologue form. We were there to take turns sharing our life stories, but when he was finally done, he abruptly stood up and walked out the door to head to work. My friend and I just looked at each other, stunned. Then my friend said something I’ve never forgotten: “He who speaks, controls.”
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 sit 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.
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…