For me personally, relationships can be made or broken over the idea of equal airtime. If you take up a majority of the verbal space between us I will usually judge you as being unconscious and cut you some slack. After all, you can’t change something you have no awareness of. This is me choosing to make the most generous assumption about you that I can. If I am struggling under the weight of heavy bad feelings (which thankfully is a rare thing; I am very grateful for my regular practices that help here), my pained mind may default to assuming you are self-important and don’t care what I think/feel/have to say. And then I start to get angry.

I have friends that I limit my time with because they talk too much when we are together. I have also dropped friends for this reason. My two essential criteria for spending time with people are: equal airtime and fun. I find a LOT of things fun because I enjoy physical play, cooperative work projects, intense intellectual stimulation, and emotional intimacy, so the fun part is usually easy to achieve. The equal airtime part is my challenge.

One major area of my life where equal airtime does not apply is in my relationships with young people. Because of the way oppression works, as an adult I am in the oppressor role vis-à-vis children and teens. So in order to re-balance this inequity I intentionally give them as much air time as they want. Whether I’m with my own kid, or some kid that I mentor, or kids that are friends with my kid, or kids I’m related to or friends with their parents, or just kids I know from around town, I am purposeful about offering them more listening than they regularly get to have.

There is also a pool of people I have long-term important relationships with (certain relatives, some old family friends & neighbours) where I have mentally given those individuals a life-long free pass to take up whatever quantity of airtime they want when we are together. This decision is based on love and compassion, and also on wanting/needing these people in my life so therefore accepting the reality and limitations of these relationships.

Unequal airtime can lead to conflict. Re-balancing the airtime in a relationship is an excellent conflict resolution strategy.

When one person in a relationship takes up a majority of the airtime it may send the following messages to the other person:

  • what I have to say is more important than what you have to say
  • your thoughts aren’t as interesting to me as my own thoughts
  • you have no insight to offer
  • I am the central person in this relationship
  • your job is to listen to me (and maybe to take care of my feelings)
  • I don’t care what you think

The above ‘messages’ are never transmitted verbally or even consciously (except in the most dysfunctional/abusive relationships). Instead they are more like an impression or idea that begins to creep into the head of the person who gets less airtime.

Obviously this kind of dynamic can lead to overt conflict or, more likely, it will become a smoldering-under-the-surface that can infect the relationship in camouflaged ways. In mediation the parties may not get precisely equal amounts of airtime but there is an intention that each person will have a chance to express themselves fully, say everything they need to, and be heard by the other person. Listening is the best conflict management tool that exists, so if you’re in a conflict the first thing to tell yourself is, “I need to listen.”

Equal airtime conveys that both parties in a conversation are equals; they both have valid contributions to make to the dialogue; they both have valuable opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

 

 

 

 

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