One day recently Jean*, a young professional woman, started her session with a rant about one of her co-workers. “The man does not stop talking,” she said. “Today he asked me how my weekend went, and before I could utter a word he started telling me about everything he had done.”
We all know someone like this man. People who talk without listening, who seem to think that what they have to say is as fascinating to everyone else as it is to them, and who don’t seem to understand that listening is an important part of communicating and connecting to others.
What makes these people tick? And what can we do about them? And maybe even more important, what can you do if you happen to be one of them?
Talking is part of what we humans do. “What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours,” Henning Mankell, author of the Wallander mysteries, wrote recently in an essay in the NY Times.
But people who talk too much don’t seem to get this balance. Why? A number of my colleagues on PT have written about different components of the difficulty some of us have, either listening to others or listening to ourselves.
“Listening requires complex auditory processing,” according to Daniel P. Ellis, a professor at Columbia University. We develop the capacity to listen automatically, according to Ellis, which is one of the reasons that even a very young child will react differently to the sounds of a robin’s song and a police siren. It is also a tool in learning.
Maybe this last part of Ellis’s work, the part that says the ability to process complex auditory signals is an important factor in our ability to learn, explains why it seems that so many people who talk at us have difficulty learning how to be more related. This is not to say that all people who talk incessantly are not deeply connected to others. But it does seem to make it difficult for them to recognize different moods and responses in their listeners.
In the best of communication, there is a kind of give and take between talking and listening, a sharing of who is the speaker and who is the listener based on mutual respect and caring about each other’s feelings. Some people who talk a lot are not able to engage in this interactive rhythm, not because they do not care, but because they cannot tolerate the emotions that might emerge as they listen to another person. In fact, in the course of my work as a therapist, I have found that many non-stop talkers actually use their words to stop themselves from knowing what they are feeling.
This is what happened with Max*, a smart, articulate man with two young children. His wife was threatening to leave him because, she said, he did not care about or understand her. Max talked his way through two sessions, almost without taking a breath, before I was able to interrupt him and ask how he was feeling. His eyes filled with tears and his voice cracked as he replied, “I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me that. I don’t want to feel how I’m feeling. I don’t want to think about how I’m feeling. I don’t want to feel.”
I asked Max if he thought that might be part of the problem that had led his wife to ask for a divorce. He nodded and said, “I haven’t been able to let myself feel anything for a long time. She thinks it’s because I don’t feel anything. It’s really because I’m in danger of feeling too much.”
Max had hit the nail on the head. Some people talk about themselves because they genuinely think they’re more interesting than anyone else they know. But many people, like Max, are overwhelmed by their own feelings and push them away by talking. Both of these kinds of talking are the opposite of the kind of story-telling exchange that Mankell describes, that bring us closer to other people. And both of these kinds of talking make it hard for a person to learn to manage his or her feelings in another way.
So what can you do if you’re troubled by a co-worker, friend or loved one who talks too much? Here are five simple suggestions that might help.
1. First, listen. But don’t listen for too long. (See my PT colleague Sophia Dembling’s terrific blog about what it feels like to listen too long. As you are listening, try to formulate for yourself what this person is trying to communicate. Is it a wish to be admired? A thought that they cannot get out of their head? A feeling that they cannot manage?
2. After listening for a little while and formulating what they are trying to communicate, ask them if they would mind terribly if you interrupt them. Sometimes they’ll say something like “No, no, I’m talking too much, go ahead.” Don’t get caught up in denying the truth. It will just distract you both. If they say, “Let me just finish this thought,” respond gently with something like, “Oh, I thought you had finished it. Can I tell you what I heard you say?” (Of course, some people still have to say it their own way. Let them finish, since you won’t have a choice; but then interrupt them as soon as they start to move to something else.)
3. When you interrupt, be ready to say something about what you hear them saying. Don’t go for a deep psychological explanation. Something simple and to the point, but if possible, something that reflects something positive about them. Many people talk over everyone because they are afraid of criticism, so don’t be surprised if they start to talk over you. Again, say, “Wait, I’d like to finish my thought now,” and then say what you were going to say about them.
4. Don’t stop with a comment about them. Add some experience of your own that will confirm that you understand what they’re experiencing. A memory of a similar event, a similar feeling, a funny story – anything that gives you a chance to share your own experience but that you can tie to theirs.
5. Stop the conversation when it goes on too long. It’s really not damaging to tell someone who you’ve been listening to for more time than you have to spare (and more than you want to give away) that you’re really sorry, but you have work you have to do and you’ll have to continue this conversation later. And if they are the kind of person who comes back later to continue the conversation, you can say, “No, sorry, I’m busy right now.” Because finally, you have the right to protect your own boundaries.
*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy and confidentiality.
Image source for teaser photo: http://www.infobarrel.com/Active_listening_skills_for_effective_learning