The art of Conversation
Hands up if you can think of someone who always manages to turn the conversation back to themselves? You could be talking about the latest film you’ve seen, a book you’ve read, a meal you’ve had with friends, politics, religion, your favourite colour…… anything, yet still they have the ability to swing the conversation back around, turning the spotlight firmly on themselves. Any chance of a decent conversation disappears under their spotlight in the flurry of “me, me, me”. Sociologist, Charles Derber called this tendency “conversational narcissism”, the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking, and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself.
If you’re on the receiving end of a conversational narcissist you might find it mildly amusing or it might infuriate you to the point of wanting to avoid that person at any possible cost. It’s an unattractive behaviour and one, if you do it, that is likely to make you unpopular and have you dropped off the invite list “tout suite”.
The tell-tale signs of a conversational narcissist are responses along the lines of “oh I know exactly how you feel, I…”, “when that happened to me I ……”, “oh you poor thing, let me tell you about when I ….”, ‘oh I did that once too, it was…”. There are dozens more examples as well. Derber has coined these types of responses – “shift responses”. That is a response that shifts the conversation back around to the conversational narcissist. Surprisingly, is it’s not entirely abnormal to do this. Modern humans are hardwired to talk about themselves more than any other topic! Partly it’s due to the way we process information. When listening to others our brain tries to find relevant experiences of our own to give the incoming information more context. It’s trying to make sense of what we see and hear. However that does not make constantly using the shift response ok! The occasional shift response is fine, as long as we allow the focus to shift back to the other person. It’s a bit like playing catch with a ball. Like catch, the conversation works best when the “ball” is thrown back and forth.
Rather than the shift response, Derber suggests a more helpful response is the “support” response. That’s a response that “supports” the other person’s comment. That would include responses such as “oh, really, tell me more…”, “Why, what’s happening for you…”, “Congratulations, that’s fantastic….” ,” Wow, do you have any idea what you’ll do next?”, “Is there anything I can do to help..?” , ‘I’m really sorry that’s happened to you..”. You get the idea. It’s about drawing the other person out, letting them have their say without stealing the limelight!
Another reason we can invoke the shift response is when, as listeners, we encounter a topic or emotions we are uncomfortable with. Perhaps someone has just received some upsetting news or had a setback. While we genuinely feel for them we’re just not sure what to say or how to say it so we jump in with something from our own experience. It’s ok to not know what to say, we can’t fix everything, sometimes we can’t fix anything. Sometimes simply stating you don’t know what to say is the best thing to do.
If someone has exciting news, or terrible news then the focus needs to be theirs, our responses need to be supportive rather than shift responses. Reciprocity is an important part of any meaningful conversation, it helps maintain a healthy balance of focus.
Some tips for being a good conversationalist (aka things that won’t get you dropped from the invite list!) include
– Don’t multitask. When you’re speaking to someone, put down your phone, tablet or car keys. Don’t think about your grocery list or what else you have to do before lunch. Be present. Be in that moment, don’t be half in it and half out of the conversation.
– Don’t pontificate. Conversations are two way and not lectures!
– Use open-ended questions, it draws the conversation out.
– Don’t get lost in the detail. The exact time, day, date or whatever detail you might be struggling to recall really doesn’t matter. Let it go.
– Avoid repeating, repeating, repeating yourself just to hammer a point home. It’s something we tend to do if we feel we’re not being heard, (often by our own teenagers!) Not surprisingly it doesn’t make people want to listen to us more.
– Lastly, but by no means least, listen! Listen to those you’re talking with. Pay attention. Don’t think about how you’re going to reply, don’t interrupt. Be respectful and listen.
We have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion!