One day recently, Jean*, a young professional woman, started her session with me by ranting 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? What can we do about them? And maybe 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 the New York 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 the difficulty some of us have either listening to others or to ourselves.
“Listening requires complex auditory processing," according to Daniel P. Ellis of 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—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. Either way, these monologues 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:
* Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy and confidentiality.
You might also want to take a look at my post on showing off.