Unconscious Obstacles

There are many unconscious ways we wrest control over a conversation and become a conversational narcissist. This is simply when someone speaks so much that it appears to be a monologue versus a shared dialogue. One subtle way this occurs is through support versus shift responses, where the feeling you impart to others can hinge on a single vocabulary choice. The underlying theme, however, is to accept letting go of control, pride, and ego, and go wherever someone else wishes to go.

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Unconscious Obstacles

If there’s so much value in being a good listener, why are so few people actually good at it? Instead of thinking in terms of skills or attributes you lack, think instead of the barriers that keep you from truly listening to another person. All the skills and techniques in the world won’t help if we still retain false beliefs, habits and blind spots that get in the way of real connection and empathy. It would be like owning a boat and being an expert seaman, but having a deathly fear of the water. Some things just overshadow others.

Let’s take a closer look at what some of these barriers might be.

Think about the poor listeners you may have encountered in your own life. What made you feel they weren’t listening to you? Perhaps the biggest problem may be their inability to look outside of themselves and their own needs. This doesn’t mean that they have real or actual needs, it simply means that they are focused only on themselves and their reality.

Good conversation is like a tennis match where the attention moves equally between the two parties, like a tennis ball. If someone is never able to truly put their attention on anything other than themselves, it’s like playing tennis with a person who never properly serves the ball, or never returns it once it goes over the net. A conversation suddenly turns into a monologue, soliloquy, or simply a lecture to an unwilling student.

So-called “conversational narcissism” may look on its surface like a regular conversation, but on closer inspection it actually resembles two people spouting monologues in close proximity to one another! In a way, good conversation is a dying art precisely because people feel more isolated than ever before.

With so many people missing the feeling of being truly heard themselves, they crave attention and to be in the spotlight, having others listen closely to them. The sad irony is that such a person can bring a selfish, even competitive attitude to an activity that is supposed to be mutually beneficial. And thus the cycle continues and grows even worse over time, spurred on by feelings of not being heard or paid attention to. Using a conversation as a platform to win attention and stroke your ego is undoubtedly a losing strategy.

Have you ever quietly waited for someone to stop speaking, thinking all the while about what you would say the moment they shut up? If so, you’ve likely been guilty of conversational narcissism too! It is still the inability to put aside your own internal monologue completely, and focus on what the other person is thinking or saying. Same end outcome of dueling monologues.

So to start with, improve your listening skills by being vigilant about the ways in which craving attention can make you a worse conversationalist. The idea is not to always seek to turn attention to yourself. Conversations should be thought of not as a means to win attention, but to share it enjoyably with someone else. The goal is not competition for the floor, but cooperation with an ally. The purpose is to collaborate, not express solely. The aim is to learn, not teach, and so on. For some of us, this may require a complete re-tooling of what we seek when we want to be social.

After an ineffective conversation, people may feel depleted, bored, or even more alone. Good conversations, on the other hand, can be things of beauty, allowing both participants to create between them something bigger than the sum of its parts. And remember how much people were willing to pay to be heard and express themselves in the study referenced earlier in this very chapter?

Listening well requires that you suspend your own self-interest and ego and gracefully allow someone else to shine.

It’s now time to get self-conscious and introspective. Sociologist Charles Derber has studied this phenomenon extensively and believes that this form of conversational narcissism can occur without people even being aware it’s going on. It can be easy to imagine that conversational narcissists are the stereotypical loudmouths who dominate conversation—but it’s far subtler than this. It turns out that the situation can turn on a single word choice. He articulated what he called support responses and shift responses, and how they can subtly pervade our everyday vocabulary.

Derber explains what he calls “initiatives” in conversation—which can be attention giving or attention seeking, the latter of which can be further divided into active or passive. For our purposes, you can guess which of the two we want to orient toward. Let’s look at some examples of both in conversation.

For the active, attention-giving variety, a “support response” maintains attention on the speaker and their topic—for example, asking a question about what’s been said. Support responses can be simple acknowledgements (“Oh really?” “Uh huh”), positively supporting (“that’s great!”), or in question form (“What did you say then?”). For instance:

“I love French films.”
“Which is your favorite?”

The “shift response,” however, is an active attention-seeking response that shifts the attention to the other person, in other words back to themselves. It’s an act of grabbing the spotlight and pointing it in the opposite direction.

“I love French films.”
“Yeah? I’ve never cared much about movies. The other day, actually, I saw this thing at the cinema…”

This isn’t to say that shift responses are always wrong—in context, they can work, especially if the other person subtly reclaims attention again. Sometimes it might even behoove you to use more shift responses to grab some of the spotlight, or make your feelings known. But how much are you using them?

If you have two people with poor listening skills, and both are hell-bent on shift responses, you end up with a wrestling match for attention, rather than a conversation. Maybe both parties are satisfying their lust for expression, but their gas tanks for being heard are running on empty. You may not notice if you are locked in this type of battle, but from the outside looking in, observing this kind of interaction can be curious and confusing.

Moreover, if a bad conversationalist (someone who continually uses shift responses) is paired with a very empathetic listener (someone who continually uses support responses), one party may well feel as though they’re having a good talk because the other person is consistently offering support responses, while the other wants to jump off a bridge because the conversation is turning into an awkward pseudo-lecture on the other person’s life and beliefs.

What about passive conversational narcissism? Naturally, some people are still quite aware of social norms and etiquette and so will vie for attention in subtler ways. One way of doing this is to fail to offer support responses, waiting till the other person’s thread dies away and you can take the limelight. Here, you are hoping that the other person runs out of steam so you can finally get your word in. It is like sitting in a tree and waiting for the prey to get tired and go to sleep—you know it will happen eventually, so you passively bide your time.

Have you been part of a conversation where the other person didn’t offer any support responses, even a quaint “Oh really?” or “Uh-huh”? You’re not quite sure whether they’ve taken in what you’ve said, and that may be intentional on their part. It may have been a case of passive conversational narcissism.

Most of us are taught that it’s polite to not ramble on, to take your turn and then rest, and to share space in conversations. Fine, this person will follow those basic rules. But they sure won’t encourage their conversation partner to speak more, lest it cut into their own speaking time! A lack of (genuine!) feedback from the other person can quickly make someone feel they ought to stop speaking—and this is where the conversational narcissist steps back into the picture.

Though it’s tempting to try to catch other people in the act of conversational narcissism, its far more productive to learn to notice it in yourself and guard against it. You can’t control what others do, but you can control your actions and how good of a listener you are. After all, that is the goal of this book. For the other purpose, you may want to seek a book on persuasion or hypnosis.

The irony is it’s often those who are able to listen well, to step aside, and to take a genuine interest in their conversation partners who become people we think of as most interesting, charismatic and worthy of our attention in the first place. So the purported goal of conversational narcissism (making darn sure that people know things about you) isn’t even satisfied. Oops.