Bad Conversationalist: Are You Guilty of These Sins?

Image by Katie Tegtmeyer via Flickr Creative Commons

There are people you can talk to for hours and not get tired. They make you feel so comfortable; they can get you to share things you wouldn’t normally tell anyone — not even your best friend. After the talk has ended, these people will make you look back and think, “Wow, that was the best conversation I’ve had in a long time.”

There are also people you’d rather just avoid when you see them coming towards you. Conversations with these people meant simply listening to them announce their achievements or their recent experiences without really having any chance to say anything.

So, which kind of conversationalist are you?

Do a mini self-inventory: see where you fall on the boring conversationalist spectrum by checking which of the five sins of conversation you’re doing:

Sin #1: Hijacking conversations

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A friend has just finished telling a story about a funny memory when suddenly, you make a move to steal her thunder: “You think that’s funny? Wait ‘til you hear this!” You expect people to listen to what you have to say, but you never listen to them. You like to top others’ stories to the point that no one gets to finish because you feel like you always need to take over. It turns into an awkward conversation where you end up being the center of attention, which frustrates the friend you hijacked.

What to do: When we were younger, we were taught to wait for our turn. The same rule applies to having a conversation. Wait until the person has finished talking, and that’s your cue to share. I know that it’s easy to jump in and cut off the person speaking when conversations get too exciting, but healthy conversations should consist of one person talking and the other listening. Wait patiently: your turn will come.

Sin #2: Not paying attention

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If you’re always on your phone while talking to someone, you’re never fully engaged in what he or she is saying. You can hear what they’re saying, but not what they truly mean – either that, or you can’t hear them at all so you had to ask them to repeat themselves more than once. By busying yourself with other things, you’re giving off the vibe that you’re not interested in the conversation – which the person may find rude or offensive.

What to do: If you really must be on your phone, excuse yourself or at least give the person you’re talking to a heads up. Keep your phone inside your bag or at least on the table as you speak. If you’re in a crowded place to begin with, stop looking around for people you might recognize and instead, show interest. Let’s take a piece of advice from a hostage negotiator, Chris Voss:  intently listening and then feeding it back can be a discovery process for both sides. For one, you get to understand what’s important for them and two, you’re helping them hear if what they’re saying makes sense to them.

Sin #3: Talking about nothing but yourself

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You are so consumed with yourself that you never bother to comment on what the other party has said. Understandably, how could you comment if you weren’t even listening properly? You listen with your “answers running,“ all the while rehearsing what you could say next to bring you back into the spotlight.

Now, I am always wary of people who keep talking about themselves and never bother to listen to others. When someone talks excessively of herself even among people she barely knows, it’s almost always a surefire way to tell that our relationship will be all about her: she will not bother to know me deeper, and our relationship will always be superficial.

What to do: Give genuine reactions to your friends’ stories and ask questions about things that piqued your interest. Of course, the only way to do that is to listen attentively and do so without the intention of shifting the conversation back to you. Allow them to tell you about their stories, even their accomplishments. Heed Confucius’s advice: “Don’t worry if people don’t recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs.”

Sin #4: Talking too much

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You talk too much that you tend to overshare, even the things that are supposed to be a secret. This tends to overwhelm the other person, and give her the impression that you’re a blabbermouth and can’t be trusted. When the other person talks as much as you do, moreover, you are also likely to fight for time.

What to do:Now, you don’t always have to give one-word or dead-end answers, but try to give your peers the chance to share. Good conversations are about balance; it should consist of equal sharing of both parties. Also, when a person trusts you enough to share sensitive information with you, resist the urge to tell anyone about it, no matter how juicy a secret it is.

Sin #5: Being condescending

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You automatically roll your eyes when your friends start talking about pop culture. You think people who only like mainstream stuff are shallow, and those who do not read the sophisticated newspapers or magazines you’re subscribed to are just plain ignorant. You also tend to become preachy when they turn to you for advice, because you feel that your experiences have put you in a better position than most everyone else.

What to do: Whenever you feel like shutting someone down for being too “petty,” consider that everyone has different realities. Don’t invalidate other people’s experiences and thoughts because they’re different from yours or because you feel you’ve experienced worse. Respect is fundamental to flowing conversations. Even when you have entirely different beliefs about a matter, let them have their say about it, and if you really must point a mistake out, do so without being demeaning.

When people turn to you for advice, try to put yourself in their shoes: these people turned to you because they valued your opinion. What would you feel if you were in their shoes and someone you trust gave you a haughty response instead of the honest opinion you were hoping to get?

If you’re like me who hates small talk, chances are, you avoid every social gathering that would require you to spark mini conversations with strangers and acquaintances. You find small talk exhausting, more so if the person you’re speaking with talks about nothing but himself or loves humble bragging.

I do, however, appreciate long meaningful talks, or even long conversations about random things. For me, conversations do more than indicating whether you and the person would hit it off: they are the crossroads that allow me to glimpse into an individual’s personality, intelligence, and even their spirituality.

So, how do you think people see you?

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