I’m sitting in the chair in the hair salon. Normally Lionel leads these quarterly encounters, asking me charming questions about my writing, my artwork, guiding the conversation to make the time pass quickly and pleasantly, and perhaps to distract me from any second thoughts I may be having as 3 inches of wavy locks drop to the polished tile floor.
But then he pauses.
Something about the painting conversation has reminded him of his sister, who also paints, who is unemployed, who is angry and defensive even as she eats through Lionel’s groceries and drives his car. There’s no one else in the salon that afternoon, and I’m listening. He’s still gliding the brush through my hair in long, practiced pulls, but the air crackles. It’s my turn to lead, I think, so I ask a question.
How long has this been going on?
We talked a little more as he softened the ends of my hair with conditioning serum, and then I walked home through the city. But we became friends that day, at least a little. That’s what switching roles does, actually. It creates connection. In a complex society built on centuries of hierarchy and transactional relationships, it can be hard to see it, but even in a beauty salon, literally in the midst of a transaction, it’s possible.
A switch of roles often happens in a moment of silence.
Honestly, sometimes you truly don’t know where you stand, or what the person in front of you wants or needs, but a little ambiguity comes with the territory of any authentic conversation. It’s a nature trail, not a paved highway, and sometimes you have to stop and look for the next marker.
But if you don’t practice both leadership and followership on a regular basis, and if you don’t believe them to be equally valuable roles, you’ll probably have a hard time in those moments, whether you’re getting your hair styled or negotiating a legal contract.
Furthermore, we’ve reached a cultural moment in which our professional titles don’t always tell us whether we need to be leading or following in any given conversation.
How many times have you thought to yourself, “Why don’t Susan just listen?” Or maybe you’ve wondered, “Why doesn’t Michael just tell me what’s going on?”
Sometimes we aren’t comfortable switching into the opposite role because we simply haven’t learned to do it well, or because we’ve been told that it’s inappropriate or wrong. And the reality is that some of us have even been penalized for it either personally or professionally.
Still, when a conversation isn’t working or a meeting is falling flat, you can often rescue it in seconds by switching roles.
And in those inevitable moments of pause or confusion, switching roles can help you discover an opportunity, whether a spark of friendship or a new idea, that might not have been in the room a moment before.
You can start by asking yourself which better serves the shared purpose in the moment:
• Continue to listen, or make a specific proposal?
• Make my case, or ask for more information?
• Offer help, or ask for help?