You have to be on the receiving end of an over-talker to understand the complex feelings that the dynamic provokes in the listener.
I used the word dynamic, but really there isn’t one since it’s literally a one-way conversation, monopolized and controlled by the compulsive talker.
For me, the hallmark of the overtalker is not their failure to recognize my disinterest in the subject they’ve delved into — it’s the excruciatingly insignificant detail they feel compelled to recount — most of which has little relevance to their monologue.
One of the ways I tend to cope with those situations is by directing my mind to ponder the why behind their incessant chatter.
They’re clearly missing social cues. Is it benign narcissism, presuming that exists?
Are they uncomfortable with silence? I mean, I am too, but developing the ability to tolerate it is a social necessity which can also be a powerful interpersonal tool, especially during serious conversations. You need to let people think and breathe in discussions, otherwise communicating can feel like being on a cognitive treadmill. Or on Fox News.
And if it is discomfort with silence — or pauses — what’s the why behind that? Is it anxiety? ADHD? Social discomfort? A mashup of them?
I get it. All the reasons make sense to me.
So now I’m going to pivot away from you — the polite, kind, trapped person — and towards you, the over-talker:
Regardless of the why behind your habit, you need to fix it or every area of your life will suffer, along with the people who comprise those areas.
HERE’S HOW TO TALK LESS
Start by asking a question. Let the other person talk. Count your breaths while you wait for an opportunity to chime in. You’re actually participating while you’re listening by making eye contact, nodding, and making facial expressions.
Pay attention to how long they spoke. Now, match that length of time when it’s your turn. TURN is the key word. They’ve volleyed back to you, probably by asking a question. Share the space by remaining mindful that you should volley back.
Break up the monologue and make it a dialogue. Great conversations involve more than one person talking, so while you’re talking, look for opportunities to invite the other person to participate. It also helps them stay focused.
- Ask rhetorical questions like, “You know when you’re [insert subject here]?”
- Ask, “Can you imagine?”
- Or, “I don’t know about you, but I was thinking…”
Limit how much you talk about yourself. People ask questions to be polite. That’s why they say, “How’s that thing you were working on?” Don’t punish them for being socially appropriate by talking about yourself endlessly. Any topic in which you are the subject should be shorter than the other topics you discuss.
Test the listener to ensure they’re interested in the topic. You’re not a mindreader. No one expects that you’ll know what someone is interested in, or what makes them regret having said hello. But you can test a person’s interest in a subject by answering their question with just enough information to warrant a follow up question if they’re interested. If you don’t get it, change the subject by asking them a question. If they’re interested, answer their follow up question with a little more information, again, looking for confirmation that they’re not struggling to stay awake.
Look for social cues to know when to move on. When you’re done talking, take a breath. That pause serves two functions: It gives them an opportunity to carry on, and if they don’t, it’s time to make an assessment. Look at their body language and facial expression to determine if they’re interested in continuing. If they’re eyes are darting around, or if they’re on their phone, they’re done. Either with the topic or with you. The most socially gracious thing you can do is let them go.
Volley to someone else. When you’re in a group situation, it’s important to share the space appropriately. Doing that requires taking note of several variables:
- Number of times the others have spoken. Make sure your participation doesn’t exceed that of the most talkative in the group.
- Length of time, on average, that each person talks. You can do this by counting your breaths or by noting the time on your phone. When it’s your turn, try to limit how long you talk to about the length that others talk.
- Cadence/Pace. Nothing amps people up like someone with pressured speech. Slow the fuck down so you don’t give yourself a heart attack. When I’ve worked with clients who have pressured speech, I’ve asked them to use a metronome to pace themselves. Over time, slow the metronome down.
- Note who hasn’t participated. That’s the person you should volley to. Do it by asking a question, even if it’s just, “What do you think?”
Leave while the party’s still good. You can end a conversation while it’s still simmering. That’s a great way to make follow up plans. You don’t need to share every thought you have on a topic. Leave them craving for more.
Remember, learning how to converse properly is a muscle that’s built over time. Mostly, it’s about keeping the other person’s needs in mind so they can enjoy the time too.
And when you inevitably slip up and find yourself halfway through a story before gazing up to read the room, feel free to use my line.
“Well, I think I have my Ted Talk subject. Now I need to figure out how to keep it under 18 minutes.”