How to stop nervous behaviors during conversation?
May 22, 2009 5:46 AM   Subscribe

I've been told I'm a very good conversationalist, but when I talk to people, I often get nervous about silences. This leads to two problems: 1) I compulsively fill in silences with questions or comments, in a way that eventually exhausts me, and 2) if food's available, I tend to impulsively snack and mindlessly eat to have *something* constantly happening (admittedly I often am munching away even when there isn't a silence). Any tips on changing these behaviors?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A couple of thoughts...

There's a difference between a momentary silence and the silence that indicates the end of the conversation. Are you seeing them both as the same?

If it's a momentary silence, it's a matter of will power... let it be, sometimes the silence is as meaningful as the words. What came to mind for me is the conversations I have with a fishing partner, sometimes there is nothing to say, just enjoy the moment and whatever fills it.

If you're having a hard time acknowledging the silence that signifies there's nothing more to say and it is time to move on, examine why you might feel a need to not let it end.

Interesting question, I'm curious as to how others will answer this.
posted by HuronBob at 6:10 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I too always ask questions to fill silences. then I get self conscious about asking too many questions, so sometimes I force myself to shut up and deal with the silence, even if its awkward for a second. usually then the other person will ask me a question and the conversation goes in a different direction... so that works well.

sounds like you need to RELAX! consciously telling yourself to relax, the world wont end if you dont have something going on constantly, could make a difference. goodluck.
posted by beccyjoe at 6:16 AM on May 22, 2009

My father is essentially ADD. I tell you this because I grew up in a world where every moment was filled with talking. Not necessarily conversation or active listening or verbal exchange, but talking. Then I met my wife. Her father is perhaps the most opposite human being to my father that could ever walk the earth. He is silent, intimidatingly silent. He only speaks when words are prudent. Conversation is a tool for exchanging knowledge and information only, period. It became clear that I just needed to shut the hell up when I was around him. I don't need to ask him if he thinks it is going to rain unless I am actively deciding to pack my umbrella or water the garden.

Now I'm not saying that one or the other of these men is superior. Both can be quite annoying at times. But the lesson I've learned from these men and their extremes is that when you are talking, you are not listening. If you are constantly waiting to speak, you are also not listening. If you are focused on chewing, you are not listening. To be a real "good conversationalist" you must be good at having a conversation, a real back-and-forth between people. To have a functional back-and-forth you must listen to the other person.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:37 AM on May 22, 2009

Sounds like anxiety. A quick new ritual you could acquire is the "2-in, 4-out" breath. Anytime there's a silence, take 2 seconds to breath in, and then take 4 seconds to breath out. The first time you do it at least reminds you to pause and takes some of the edge off. A couple-more times, and you should start to see an improvement in your anxiety.

Consider it a mini-meditation.
posted by philosophistry at 8:46 AM on May 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Count to seven. I started doing that, and found that people often had more to say than I was allowing them to. For bonus points, smile and make eye contact and just quietly *appreciate* the other person while counting to seven.

Here's an exercise from a communication workshop that I attended:
- Find a partner
- Tell a story for 2 minutes. Your partner's job is to listen attentively without adding any of her own thoughts. She can smile, nod, or say things like "uh-huh, go on, how interesting!".
- Switch roles.

When I tried it, I learned as the talker that there's more to say if I'm given the space to say it. I learned as the listener that a concerted effort of not drifting off or thinking about my next utterance helps me *really* listen to what they're saying.

Breaking out of the default ping-pong pattern can lead to great conversations!
posted by metaseeker at 9:30 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I do this too. Somehow I've acquired a lot of lovely friends who also happen to be naturally quiet and maybe a little introverted. I always feel that it's up to me to keep every moment filled. It's exhausting.

What I try to remember is that even though momentary silences may be awkward for me, they probably aren't for them. The biggest problem is just figuring out where to look. I mean, if you're having lunch with a friend, and she's not talking, and you're not talking, are you staring at each other across the table? It just feels so odd to me. I've gotten to the point where I can sit with my best friend in a room, reading or watching television, and I don't feel the need to talk, but I still haven't solved the lunch problem.
posted by Evangeline at 9:33 AM on May 22, 2009

mthing metaseeker. I'm introverted by nature, and I tend to pepper my conversation with short pauses (usually because I'm either processing what has just been said or searching for a way to express what I want to say). I naturally shut up and let the other person talk if they continually interject or fill the voids I leave in my conversation. A great deal does not get said on my part as a result.

If you find yourself continually filling in gaps, maybe step back and ask yourself whether the person you're talking to is a bit introverted. You may need to slow down your rate of conversation a little to accommodate them.
posted by LN at 10:00 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who thinks of himself as a great conversationalist. To be polite I've agreed with him that he's a good conversationalist, but the truth is he's a blowhard. I'm not saying you're a blowhard, but consider that the rhythm of each conversation is unique. Try to relax using the techniques mentioned in this thread.

It's also easier to learn to accept silence if you speak another language or dialect that accepts silences. Watch films or shows in that language/dialect and pay attention to dialogue.

Also, extrovert/introvert is not an either/or proposition. Many extroverts just shut down when faced with someone who talks too much. I have a friend like that. Her attitude is "Why bother speaking up? Great Conversationalist X isn't listening anyway."
posted by vincele at 5:18 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

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