We all have someone like this friend of mine in our lives: generous, gregarious, and all around a lovely person. That is, until you need a listening ear.
Sure, she says she’s eager to hear your problems, and she even sets up drinks for a “heart-to-heart” session. But when you do meet, instead of actually listening to what you have to say, she peppers her responses with “mhmm”s and “I know what you mean”s, and then, she’s telling you what your problem reminds her off, and regaling tales about the times that she has been slighted. All of a sudden, you’re the one trying to cheer her up and saying things like “no, hun, of course you didn’t do anything wrong” and hang on… weren’t we supposed to be talking about me?
I’ve always been a good listener – or at least, I’d thought so. I like lending a sympathetic ear, I try to offer solutions, and I’m always ready to empathise with a personal anecdote or two. It’s what is expected of all good friends, right?
Maybe not. My intentions may always stem from a good place, but being on the receiving end of my friend’s infuriatingly oblivious behaviour has made me realise that I had to take a good hard look at my own and check that I wasn’t falling into the same trap. That’s when I caught myself constantly having to curb the urge to interrupt a friend, and to talk about my own experiences in relation to the problem at hand. I now see that what I had always assumed was empathy on my part has in fact, quite the opposite effect than intended. It was a sobering moment.
There’s a name for this tendency to self-insert, and steer the conversation back towards oneself. Coined “conversational narcissism” by sociologist Charles Derber in his book The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, it’s a habit that’s usually (thankfully) unconscious, even if it seems obnoxious.
According to Derber, there are two types of responses in conversations: a shift response and a support response. Conversational narcissists dominate conversations with the former (ergo to “shift” the conversation back to them), while good listeners know to make use of the latter to “support” the other person’s comment (for example, asking what your friend has on her plate when she complains about her workload, instead of also complaining about your own). A good conversation will consist of both.
But don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re now sheepishly recognising similar patterns in your own behaviour. An article by Reader’s Digest posits that one of the reasons why people default to conversational narcissism is because of feelings of awkwardness. “They go back to what they know – and that’s their own personal experiences,” says marriage and family therapist Kate Campbell. To become a better listener, she suggests asking follow-up questions, showing true curiosity instead of using filler phrases, and most importantly, “listening to understand vs. listening to respond or share a story”.
Of course, being more self-aware and becoming a better listener is only half of the equation to holding a good conversation. You can, and should, expect reciprocal behaviour from your friends, and vice versa. But if your friend still remains blissfully oblivious to his or her own endless monologuing? Well, then you are entitled to get through it with a few “mhmm”s and “I know what you mean”s.
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