I am constantly reading about how to be better at conversation. For a long time I definitely showed signs of being what sociologist Charles Derber describes as a “conversational narcissist”– meaning I would constantly insert myself and my story into any conversation. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade or more trying to change those habits.
For me, it was often a coping mechanism as I faced my own social anxieties. Some people get quiet, I would get LOUD and be like…LET’S TALK ABOUT ME BECAUSE THAT’S THE ONLY THING I KNOW ABOUT. And if I was desperate, especially in my early 20s, I would basically make up shit to seem more interesting to ease my fear of being perceived as boring or unlikable. I would be in a group or meeting new people or at a party and if I couldn’t find a REAL connection to talk about I would try to create one just to seem more likeable which eventually all backfired which is why I also spent some time feeling very alone.
Over the last 15’ish years I have learned it’s actually easier to take the opposite approach when I am feeling anxious in social situations – to get OTHER people to talk about THEMSELVES – but that’s not always easy to do…hence the reading. I try to educate myself and train myself to ask questions and engage about another person’s life instead of constantly trying to connect threads (sometimes fake ones) to my own.
SIDENOTE: I almost messaged my college best friend recently to say, “Hey – sorry I was always such a conversational narcissist when we were in college,” but then I saw that just a few days before I had messaged her saying, “Thank you for being so awesome when Eliah broke his arm back in college, I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate you enough,” and I thought maybe I should tone down the constant: I AM SO SORRY FOR MY PAST TERRIBLE HABITS messages.
All of this is especially important when we’re talking about someone else’s pain or grief. We all tend to err on the side of conversational narcissism when someone else is in pain because it is SO HARD to hold their pain and it just feels like a good response to be like, “Here was a time when I was in pain too!” Instead, what I’m trying to do is think about that time I was in pain and try to ask a question based on my experience and knowledge. Something like “Are you sleeping okay?” because I remember how much grief affected my sleep. BUT I DO NOT IMMEDIATELY TELL THEM ABOUT MY GRIEF. I just use that connection to know what to ask. Or, “Do you like the nurses?” because I remember how hard it was to have a hospitalized family member if you don’t like the care staff.
And obviously it’s okay to talk about myself periodically, that’s how connections are made through shared vulnerability. That’s another part of the self-education process…learning when it’s time to let someone else share and when it’s time to share my own. I’m mainly learning to be aware of that balance and to read the signs of what the other person needs. If they’re living their story IN THE MOMENT, then it’s time to listen. But if they’re reflecting on a past pain, maybe it’s okay to also connect on my past pain. But I always try my BEST to ask more questions than I do tell my own stories…which is a really hard thing to train yourself to do when your instincts were the opposite for the majority of your life.
Here’s to using my voice to ask questions more than to tell stories.