How Carefully Do You Dose In Your Conversation?

Young woman taking off glasses tired of computer work

When you hear the word “dose,” what comes to mind?  Most of us think of that word in terms of amounts of medication to take. We are familiar with the concept of over-dosing and the dire consequences of that.

But have you ever thought about how much you dose information in your conversations?  Are you aware that you can “overdose” the other person by sharing too much too quickly, even if it is great, powerful and important stuff.

I first heard about dosing at a conference featuring Dr. Bruce Perry.  He shared an image that has stuck with me for years that I think explains the key principles of dosing. He invited us to imagine a sponge and someone dripping water onto it.  At some point the sponge would become saturated and any additional water dripped onto it would simply run off and onto the table or floor. That water could not be absorbed by the sponge even though the water was just as good as all the water that preceded it.

Dr. Perry continued by describing the brain as very similar to a sponge in its capacity to take in information, process it and decide if and what to save somewhere in the brain’s storage areas. As more and more information is shared, the brain eventually reaches a saturation point.

Thinks about times when you have been in a lecture or sat through a sermon that lasted more than 20 minutes. Chances are you began to zone out at some point, mentally shutting down and no longer able to focus on what was being shared. Your mind probably wondered. Dr. Perry shared that we all zone out, which is technically called dissociation, multiple times every hour if only for a few seconds. Suddenly we might find ourselves aware that we missed the last few sentences of a conversation and we try to catch up so we can understand what is being said.

Those who have severe and unresolved trauma issues often dissociate for longer periods of time when they are triggered by something being said, or when they have a flashback or feel threatened for some reason.

I think of our educational system where students are forced to sit through lecture after lecture all day long as if being told something for an extended period of time will make a greater impression and have a deeper impact.  It often is the opposite!

There are antidotes and preventive measures we can benefit from to avoid information overload. One is to be animated when speaking, maybe using gestures and movement to keep another person or group awake and alert. The brain responds with greater attention when experiencing novelty. Taking frequent brain brakes helps to interrupt potential boredom. For example, we could get the other person or people moving, doing intentional breathing, or engaging them in some kind of mental exercise.

There are ways to help “squeeze the sponge” to allow the brain to be ready to receive more information.  I use the acronym SAID to remind myself what helps someone remember:

  • Use Stories to use other parts of the brain to visualize something in the story to enhance understanding.
  • Use Analogies to actively compare what is in the analogy to what they are sharing – Dr. Perry did that by using the analogy of a sponge being like a brain trying to absorb information.
  • Use Images to allow the brain to create pictures in the mind. In our training we use the image of an iceberg to describe a person as more than what we can see, i.e., more than the tip of the iceberg. We describe two underlying layers:  how emotionally healthy a person is and how relationally healthy they are. 
  • Use Demonstrations to bring life to information. A demonstration is much more memorable than simply providing facts.

Reviewing information shared can reinforce it and make it more memorable—another way to squeeze out some of what is in the mental sponge.  Creating a review is an even stronger way to make some concept or fact sticky. Creating a Q and A process also promotes attentiveness and lets you know how well people have gained what you presented. Breaking into small groups to relate personal stories to what was shared helps to enhance understanding because creating stories brings concepts to life.

A rule of thumb is to not lecture or just present information for more than 10 minutes without providing a mental break: telling a story, using an analogy or image, doing a demonstration or something else to increase the energy needed and provide opportunities to squeeze out one’s sponge to prepare for more information

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Can you recall times when you experienced information overload and basically were being overdosed by a parent, teacher, coach, boss or other person of authority?
  2. Are you clearer about how you might inadvertently overdose others with too much information?
  3. What are some specific principles and approaches you can use to increase effectiveness in your conversations?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute