• Keeping Friends

When It’s Time To Shut Up and Listen

Published: August 1, 2015 | Last Updated: August 17, 2021 By | 12 Replies Continue Reading
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“Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.”

-Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

I met Sandy, a longtime acquaintance, when she was the keynote speaker at a local fundraiser several years ago. She is, as my dad would explain it, a “major mover and shaker” in our community. Attractive, generous, and funny, she’s the sort of person who can do anything she sets her mind to, whether it’s hosting a wedding reception for 200 in her backyard, running for city council, or raising money to help victims of domestic violence. All of us admire her.

So what could possibly be wrong with this picture? For one thing, you’ll notice that I called Sandy an “acquaintance” (rather than a friend) when I described her. That’s because my longtime affiliation with Sandy is all about Sandy — and it never goes any deeper than that.

For instance, there was the time Sandy and I met for dinner to discuss a project we were working on at our kids’ high school. After we ironed out the details for the project, the rest of our conversation was all about Sandy’s latest activities and achievements, including a big award she’d recently won. I nodded with sincere interest and affirmed everything she told me for what felt like hours and hours. At one point, I looked at my watch and realized she hadn’t stopped talking for 20 minutes, and then I lost track.

Worst of all, any time I tried to gently insert myself into Sandy’s monologue — to share a similar experience that related to her topic — she smiled vaguely and then quickly redirected the talk back to herself. My admiration for her dwindled considerably that night, and from then on, I’ve tried to avoid her at other public functions.

Rock star pal or certifiable narcissist?

Then there’s Paul, an old friend of mine from college. A professional musician who loves music trivia, Paul can tell you anything you want to know about rock ‘n’ roll history, including every woman Mick Jagger ever dated. He’s one heck of an entertainer and a great storyteller, which, to his credit, is why he’s always working around town.

My friends and I have attended many of Paul’s concerts and coffeehouse gigs. When he comes out to chat with us after a show, he’s always thrilled to see us, but rarely asks what any of us are up to. Instead, he regales us with details on his next performance or the new CD he’s working on, as if to ensure the spotlight remains on him.

And while any attention from Paul is flattering, initially, the glow starts to dim when you realize he doesn’t care about anything you have to say — unless it somehow relates back to him. Like Sandy, he seems to want admirers and fans, not friends.

Of course, I appreciate an enthusiastic talker as much as the next person. I’m uncomfortable at parties where people are too shy to open up. The world needs extroverts, and I salute them. But lately I’ve been encountering more people like Sandy and Paul — people who leave me feeling invisible, insignificant, or drained after they’ve finished having their say. After talking it over with several other friends, I’ve discovered that I’m hardly alone in nursing this pet peeve.

What is a real conversation?

I can’t help but wonder if social media outlets are contributing to the growing problem of one-sided, self-referential conversation.

Maybe we’ve gotten so used to showcasing our own achievements (or ranting about our own problems) on Facebook, for example, that we’re unsure of how to engage other people in two-way conversations. Maybe we’re so busy “sharing” ourselves that we’ve simply forgotten how to interact with one another.

To avoid these pitfalls, I suggest applying a few simple tactics. When you’re conversing with another person, make a point of asking him/her a question or two, take a deep breath, then listen with genuine interest for the answer. Give yourself the task of learning at least one new thing about everyone you meet. Practice the art of observation, looking with wonder at the world around you. That way, it’s not all about you.

Ironically, studies show that attentive listeners are viewed as better conversationalists than folks who jabber non-stop. After all, who doesn’t enjoy being in the company of someone who’s sincerely interested in other people? Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with a friend like that?

Guest contributor Anne L. Skillman is a nationally published freelance writer in the Midwest. 

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Comments (12)

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  1. Lauren says:

    There is not enough emphasis on learning conversational skills and conversational skills. I know that private school usually have classes on social skills, ethical behavior and conversational skills. But in general, this is becoming a thing of the past.

    There seems to be more and more of people commandeering conversations, and turning them into self-centered,extremely lengthy monologues. A number of people sadly seem to forget the very basic rule about giving more or less equal time for each participant in the conversation. There is also the 30 second rule about trying to include a sincere, pleasant comment about the other person(s) in the first 30 seconds or so of the conversation.

    Other people don’t seem to realize that personal, probing questions are not welcome in a general conversations, especially in a group setting. Or maybe they do, and they don’t care.

    Good manners make such a great difference to every aspect of our lives.

  2. Lauren says:

    Maybe there is way too little emphasis on the art of conversation. It’s wonderful be be fully conversant and savvy in the use of social media, but unfortunately, in-person, one-on-one conversational skills seem to be falling by the wayside.

    I know that in private schools there are classes on conversational skills and general social skills, but then only a relative few children are students at those schools. And yet these classes really help the children as they grow and mingle socially.

    A number of people seem to forget about the basic social conversational rules regarding equal time for each person in the conversation. Also, it’s helpful to remember the 30 second rule, by trying to include something sincere and pleasant about the other person(s) within the first 30 seconds or so of initiating a conversation.

    Good manners can really make such a great difference.

  3. lottie says:

    Having just read I agree Sandy and Paul are not friends and far from it.

    Sandy is a fund raiser and Paul a musician both business people who are only interested in money.

    You will not give to Sandy if she was a misery nor Paul who was obnoxious with his fans.Both people see $$$$££££ every time they chat up their audiences.

    They will be the same wherever they go. Out of sight out of mind. Lottie

  4. lottie says:

    After reading, I agree Sandy and Paul are not friends and never will be nothing but acquaintances.
    Both the examples Paul and Sandy are business people who want to come over as your “friends”. They only want one thing from you and that is your MONEY.You will not part with money if they were miseries,so it is not in their interests to be unpopular,quite the opposite.

    Imagine if Sandy was quite awful would you want to give to her cause. No.If Paul was obnoxious.No.Then move onto the next person

    Sandy the fundraiser/hosting weddings.
    Paul the rock musician has to be popular so he sells his music.

    So they will gush with laughter and smiles.

    They want you to think they are your best friends in a very light hearted way the same as your hairdresser or manicurist.

    Out of sight out of mind. Lottie

  5. Alice says:

    I would say at least one third of my women acquaintances are into opera. In other words,”ME, ME, ME”. It’s just the way it is. During my younger, native days, a psychologist friend suggested I “Just politely tell her” she might want to give you a chance to share and talk. So I did. Politely. Very politely. She became quite irate, said she didn’t know what I could possibly mean, and never spoke to me again. A lesson learned. If you don’t like being the listener most of the time, move on or just listen.

    • Lauren says:

      Alice, Thanks for sharing this experience. It is sad that those “solutions” which seem to be so workable in magazine articles, advice, and so on, often don’t seem to work in real life social settings. I guess that some people as self centered and cannot or will not change. It’s sad.

  6. Someone says:

    My mother in law is like this, and has been since I met my SO almost 10 years ago. She has never asked anything about myself other than “how are you doing?” (not really a question, almost a formality, and my answer is barely noted), and conversations with her are always hour-long monologues about herself, her life, how strong she is, and how people disappoint her. It’s absolutely draining. She really has never learned how to have a conversation, and I honestly suspect she just isn’t interested in anything else others have to say. I simply KNOW she doesn’t care.

    She doesn’t just do this to me, I’ve observed her acting in this matter with her family members, too. I literally feel tired after spending any amount of time in her presence. You can see the effects of this in her life — she has no friends. I feel empathy for her, but this streak of narcissism does not endear her to anyone at the end of the day.

    I had to chuckle at the line above that said “any time I tried to gently insert myself into Sandy’s monologue — to share a similar experience that related to her topic — she smiled vaguely and then quickly redirected the talk back to herself.” When I tried this tactic, this happened this way so often that I just stop trying, hahaha.

    She’s older and has operating this way her whole life, so there is little hope of her changing. I keep her at an arm’s-distance because of this. I’ve learned that you can’t control anyone’s behavior. You can try the “redirect conversation” tactic above (it most likely won’t work), or you can call them out on their rude behavior… but let’s face it, adults act this way because they are suffering from some kind of personality disorder, and you’re not going to change 25+ years of ingrained behavior.

    You can only control your own behavior and that’s why it’s better to keep your distance from anyone who makes you feel drained. Friendships, conversations, and respect are all two-way streets; this is a universal law. These self-absorbed chatterboxes are PEOPLE, not gods. They are adult human beings who are subject to the same laws of give-and-take. If they take and take and take, take yourself out of the equation. It’s not your job to be an audience, and life is too short to be chained in this role with anyone.

    • Sandra says:

      “Someone,” your response really hit home with me too. Your MIL sounds a lot like one of my relatives — a person who drones on about her own problems, her own life, constantly. When you try to insert yourself, she will try to top what you just said. If you try to offer a suggestion to one of her complaints, she blows it off. She just wants to hear herself talk, and she is competitive enough to “one up” you every time you open your mouth.

      I like what you said at the end of your comment: “If they take and take and take, take yourself out of the equation. It’s not your job to be an audience, and life is too short to be chained in this role with anyone.” I liked your comments and your good suggestion to the problem of dealing with self-centered people.

      • Someone says:

        I’m glad you could relate! And I like your point about competition… One uppers! Yeah, competition belongs in sports, not relationships! I so hear you on that, Sandra.

    • Reader says:

      I can so relate to your story! My MIL is a narcissist true and true. Everyone runs away when she comes near them. No one wants to sit next to her at any dinners or events.

      She is completely clueless. She is also very negative, bitter and mean spirited. I am not sure if all narcissists are mean spirited but mostly very out of touch in general. It is true, it is almost impossible for someone who has a personality disorder to change.

      I have only had her for a MIL for a couple of years but I know she will be exactly the same 20 years from now and not to invest to much emotionally into the relationship. no matter what I do, it will always be my fault so I decided I will do what I prefer and not try and please this impossible woman.

  7. Amy F says:

    I worry a lot about social media interferes with kids’ learning to problem solve, communicate and resolve conflict.

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