Conversational narcissist
May 2, 2012 1:27 PM   Subscribe

How can I change my conversational narcissism?

I've become frustrated with being a conversational narcissist--I habitually make most conversations about myself and my interests rather than remembering to ask other people about themselves and drawing them out. Over time, I've become more and more aware of this habit and have started to work on it with some success when on Facebook/ other written correspondence (I think), but I find it very difficult to stop talking about myself in real life conversation. I'm pretty introverted to begin with so it seems like my main options for social interactions are talking about myself or really not speaking at all. What can I do to build some better conversational habits about topics that aren't me?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
When listening to someone speak, we are processing what they say and thinking of what our next contribution to the conversation is going to be. This is normal human behavior.

So, instead of thinking about your next contribution being a statement, think about how to make it a question.

Are they talking about their job? Ask them the questions that YOU would like to answer about YOUR job.

Are they talking about their significant other? Ask them the questions that YOU would like to answer about YOUR significant other.

It's a habit, and all habits take practice. :)
posted by DWRoelands at 1:40 PM on May 2, 2012 [11 favorites]

Basically most people like to talk about themselves, and it can be a dance and a balance to keep a cordial conversation going. It's easy to end a statement you make abut yourself with a question like "What do you think?" or "What would you do?". But there are limits and dangers to that too.

Look at all of the books by Leil Lowndes (and available audio versions). As she writes on her page there, her first two books are a very good start. The others have some repetition and go deeper in certain directions.

And, of course, How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, which everyone should read.
posted by caclwmr4 at 1:43 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fran Liebowitz wrote one of my favorite quotes, "The opposite of talking isn't waiting."

Really listen, and when you catch yourself saying, "That happened to ME!" Substitute it with, "wow, what was that like?"
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:43 PM on May 2, 2012 [10 favorites]

I've been thinking about how to fix the same thing lately and so far the only thing I've come up with is to turn people's questions around at them. So if someone asks me about my weekend or what I'm reading or whatever, I try to remember to ask them about their weekend or what they're reading once I've answered them. You still have to remember to do this but it seems like just thinking about it helps to keep it in my mind.
posted by fansler at 1:47 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you read How to Win Friends and Influence People? It's a classic book about how to relate to people; it speaks specifically to this questions. (Summary: Talk in terms of the other person's interests.)
posted by jdroth at 1:47 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

the main thing is to practice at it, and here is what you should practice while talking to people:

1. not interrupting (I don't know if you do this, but it sometimes comes with the territory.) pretty self-explanatory. it's a matter of developing an internal check against it.

2. recognizing when you're about to say "oh man, that happened to me!" or "oh I always have to do [x] in that situation, one time..." and holding off a bit. there's nothing wrong with bringing your own experience to bear, but it's useful to not do it right away and instead wait until it seems like you've gotten through their story or experience. when these things happen, and it seems like you should say something, try actively to think of a question related to their experience you'd like to ask instead. you don't have to fake it, just listen to what they're saying and ask whatever comes naturally. it can be as simple as a question about a detail that you're wondering, or something instead about their general experience, like "oh man, do you have to deal with that type of thing often?" etc...

3. if you do happen to make it about you, it's always ok (though not always necessary) to say "oh, but you were finishing your story," or "oh, but so you said [x], what do you normally do in those situations?" basically invite them to continue their side of things.

4. basically listen to them the way you would watch a tv show, read a book, or be an audience for anything. think about what they're saying on their terms and see if you're interested in the story or idea they're presenting to you and focus on that instead of just how it relates to your own experience. you're always allowed to bring your own experience to a conversation, but it should flow naturally from being an appreciative listener.

good luck to you. you just have to keep working at it. don't beat yourself up, just be mindful.
posted by shmegegge at 2:15 PM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

You just need to be more mindful of asking people questions and showing general interest in them. That you're aware of it is a good start. Don't put yourself down when you find yourself focusing on you, just use it as a cue to include them.
posted by mleigh at 3:02 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to Dale Carnegie, a classic, let me recommend Leil Lowndes.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:19 PM on May 2, 2012

I just want to say that you can totally turn this around simply by asking a few questions in every conversation. We have a friend--let's call him John--who used to be a ridiculous conversational narcissist. We privately referred to the condition as "Radio John." We've known him for almost 15 years and in that time he may have inquired after us and our interests maybe twice. We really like him but this quality was so incredibly offputting. But a couple of weeks ago, he suddenly stopped broadcasting and started asking questions. Somebody must have had a little chat with him! It's really great and apparently wasn't too hard of a change for him to make, once he was made aware of the problem. You can do it, too!
posted by HotToddy at 3:35 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's really good that you even notice this. You're on your way to being a better conversationalist already! A good way of not making the conversation all about you is to mentally keep tabs on how many times you use the word "I", and try to actively increase the number of times you ask the person you're talking to a question.

Talking about yourself is a normal part of conversation and you shouldn't feel too bad about hogging the conversation when you do this. The key is, when you ARE telling someone something about you - e.g. what you did last night, what you like to eat, etc - you should turn it around and make it about them too. "I saw Cabin in the Woods yesterday and it was really good! Do you like Joss Whedon?" This changes it from a statement into a dialogue.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:48 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

I find that to fully engage with someone else on a level where I care about what they're saying, instead of just relating to them with "I I I"s, I have to be clear-headed, confident and calm. The times when I am bursting to say something about myself are the times when I am feeling inadequate (needing to compare myself to them or clear something up about myself), nervous, or tense.

A couple of my friends are frequent narcissistic interrupters and they have both admitted something of the same, that they do it because they are socially anxious and so excited for the chance, trying SO HARD, to make their conversational partner see them in a good way.

You say you're an introvert. Are you also shy? Do you not talk because you are at all nervous, or concerned about being liked? It's not clear from your question whether or not this describes you...but if does, then your mental energy may be so focused on your own insecurity, your anxiety about relating, that you don't have the capacity to focus on the person you're speaking with. If that's the case, working on your self confidence will likely help to correct your conversational narcissism, and give you a clear enough mind to focus on and engage with what the other person is saying.
posted by houndsoflove at 6:01 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't get too enthusiastic in the opposite direction and start pumping out question after question; that gets tiresome. I think it's not only about who asks and who tells, it's also about finding resonance, sharing, asking & telling in a way that creates connection instead of separation? Sometimes questions are self-asserting; sometimes stories are opening. If you tell a story about yourself in a way that's attuned to the situation, that can be very harmonious and inviting. Conversely, a question asked just because you think you should ask a question can be disinterested, closing, dull. Maybe in addition to trying to ask more, also just try to actively pay attention to the other person: see them, listen actively, use your imagination to understand them, let your empathy do its thing.
posted by mbrock at 11:51 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ask people questions about themselves. Are you interested in other people? Become interested in other people. They know things you don't and have lived lives you haven't. People are fascinating.

Try relaxing and focusing on what the other person is saying rather than what you have to say next. So you're not just grilling the other person, respond to them by sharing similar experiences you've had. Take turns and don't overthink it. Don't feel like you have to rush to say something either - it's okay to pause for breath and come up with a thoughtful response! Also, check out How To Win Friends and Influence People for some inspiration.
posted by sunnychef88 at 6:28 AM on May 3, 2012

It should be mentioned...

The primary reason to have a conversation is to learn about other people. Sometimes, when you realize that you're monopolizing a conversation, it's because the person you're speaking to really isn't all that interesting. The best way to listen more in conversations is to have conversations with people that you naturally find it interesting to listen to.

If that doesn't happen often for you, broadening your horizons some can help you to understand better where people are speaking from, providing necessary context for understanding their enthusiasms.
posted by JHarris at 12:09 PM on May 3, 2012

I've had similar trouble. The standard "ask more questions" advice rang kind of hollow to me, in its non-specificity. I've taken to observing those who I think are more adept at these things. I consider what they say and the likelihood that I would say anything like that in their shoes. Anywhere that I can think, "I would never *ever* have said that," then I have a more concrete pattern to examine.

For one example, someone asked me if I had attended a particular concert on the weekend. I had never said or done anything that would give the impression that I had attended a concert that weekend, or had any interest in the band that was playing, or the genre of music they play. ( I tried the obvious follow-up of whether *he* had attended that concert, but he hadn't, so it wasn't that obvious why he brought it up. )

On later analysis, I realized I would never have asked that question, probably due to a strong reluctance to presume anything. I wouldn't want to presume they were interested in a band they had never expressed any interest in. But it's a presumption of no real consequence, especially since it's in a question. It's not a presumption founded on racial or gender stereotypes, or something insulting like that. So why would I have such a strong reluctance?

So, now I make an effort to presume some small completely unfounded belief once in a while, and it does sometimes provoke interesting conversations. ( And it hasn't just resulted in a rash of people asking me about my out-of-the-blue presumptions. )

Now, the unfounded beliefs thing is just an example that I think is useful for me. You would have to come up with your own examples through observation and comparison.

( The unfounded beliefs thing is related to a fact-based vs. goal-based conversation theory that I've been fleshing out. Many of my poor conversational habits come from being so far skewed towards the fact-based side that I neglect the goal-based side. This may or may not be relevant to your own weaknesses. )
posted by RobotHero at 3:26 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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