let me ask you a question. And tell you the answer
September 8, 2014 10:30 AM   Subscribe

I am the sort of person I can't stand - an uptight conversationalist. Please help me be less controlling in conversation.

So when I talk with people, I feel like I'm controlling - like I know what we ought to talk about and what they should say, or what I want to hear them say, instead of simply listening to what they uniquely have to say. So when I ask a question, it feels a little leading. I don't ask the question to hear what they have to say, I ask to confirm what I'm already thinking they should say or feel. Sometimes if they say something different than what I expect, I feel a little annoyed. You're going off script! When I catch this trait and simply try to listen openly, I feel somewhat tense and anxious. (I do have anxiety.) I can overcompensate by being "on" a little. I don't think I do anything externally to control them (I try to validate them & their feelings, and imagine their point of view, and I don't do all the talking, but I probably try to guide or control the subject matter). But since I feel tense inside, I'm sure they pick up on a A-type controlling vibe or something. Someone did once mention that they noticed I tend to ask questions seemingly looking for a certain kind of answer. I've met people like me and it's a total turn off - you can't be yourself! But then I turn around and do it. What the heck.

A couple of times by some miracle I was relaxed, open and listening, asking questions out of genuine curiosity and a willingness to meet the person where they were, instead of where I thought they ought to be. It was an entirely different experience for me. Not just feeling relaxed, but feeling connected to the other person and they felt special to me. It's like the space gave me room to breathe. It's weird how letting go made me feel better and made the interaction more fun. Do most people feel like that?

Any suggestions how to be less controlling in conversations? I'll try not to control your responses (ha ha). Thanks for listening.
posted by serenity soonish to Human Relations (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: We are all desperately craving connection. This stuff is hard enough as it is. Try not to be so hard on yourself. If you can forgive your own occasional conversational etiquette lapses (as you see them anyway) I think you'll begin to find it easier to really FEEL that kind of authentic connection to others.

Think about what factors led up to you being "relaxed, open and listening" those times. Were you particularly well-rested those days? Eating right? Exercising? Had your to-do's written down somewhere so they weren't taking up space in your brain? Where was the conversation taking place? Give that some thought.

Perhaps the goal should be find a way to relieve your own inner tension first.
posted by hush at 10:42 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Listening is a skill that has little to nothing to do with your interest in the other person. Google "active listening" and practice, practice, practice. It gets easier with time.

For the anxiety, consider therapy or meds. This seems like it's really negatively affecting your life.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:47 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your question makes me want to have a conversation with you. Partly to see what it would be like, but mainly because you obviously have some content that you're passionate about.

So, your approach is not necessarily a turn-off. Not to everyone. Better to be yourself, as you are, than try harder at faking it.
posted by rd45 at 10:49 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would spend some time trying to understand why you want to control other people and what they say. Is it because you want a conversation to be perfect? Or do you feel like the people you're speaking with aren't intelligent enough to hold their own in the conversation? Controlling behavior is rooted in fear. What are YOU afraid of here?
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:20 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Actually, I think you kind of answered your own question in your second paragraph. I'm like you - I'm a little anxious, and because I am concerned with being socially competent, this can result in me over-thinking conversations so that I can predict where it goes and respond accordingly. As such, when a conversation goes off my internal script, I get anxious because I'm concerned about how I can reply without seeming like an alien. As a result of this I get a little domineering and sometimes I will press a conversation into discomfort simply because I want the other party to 'admit' something (this 'thing' being the next part of my internal script).

But like you, when I am relaxed and I approach a conversation as an opportunity to hear how other humans experience the world, when I assume that the other person is at least as smart as me but have simply experienced a different life that has accordingly structured their worldview, then it's easier. Conversation flows naturally and I'm not freaking out about the next few sentences or how to match up what's been said with where I think the conversation "should" go. Instead, I become the kind of pleasant, curious, charming, well-spoken conversationalist who gets invited to dinner parties. It sounds silly and it does take work, but for the next few days when you're in casual conversation settings, focus on your inquisitive, gentle acceptance of humanity.

(Unless someone becomes a total jerkface, then all bets are off.)
posted by nicodine at 11:32 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You must be afraid that if the other person goes "off script", they will say something to make you feel terrible. Some possibilities:

1. You feel unsure about some of your life decisions, so it's easy for others to unsettle you, even accidentally. If they talk about a choice that's different from the choice you made, you start feeling insecure.

2. You have "PTSD" from previous experiences of people speaking harshly to you when they went off script.

What can help with both is to keep focusing inward on your own sensations. Let's say you made a life choice X. Does it feel "true" to you? If so, focus on that feeling, so that it can act as a shield.
posted by vienna at 11:51 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was relaxed, open and listening, asking questions out of genuine curiosity and a willingness to meet the person where they were, instead of where I thought they ought to be. It was an entirely different experience for me. Not just feeling relaxed, but feeling connected to the other person and they felt special to me. It's like the space gave me room to breathe. It's weird how letting go made me feel better and made the interaction more fun. Do most people feel like that?

Yes, that's exactly what listening from an open and connected place feels like. Good on you for recognizing it!

Now the trick is looking for opportunities to practice listening in that mode. Fortunately the world abounds with people to practice listening to. Here are some tips.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:54 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Meditation. Meditation encourages neuroplasticity, which is the ability to be adaptable in all situations, both mental and physical. Meditation also encourages a detachment from results. Try doing it for 10 minutes a day and see how it affects your ability to just be present in a conversation instead of trying to control the conversation.
posted by Brittanie at 12:26 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "Better to be yourself, as you are, than try harder at faking it."

I have to disagree with this. You may be a better man than, I. I am, as I are, often tired and cranky or just plain lazy, or feeling frail and likely to take offense, or too hungry to concentrate without real effort. These aspects of myself, and so many other traits, are things that I conceal by fakery, or what I like to call manners.

Maybe try to remember that we're all muddling along as best we can and there is no one who has the power to award, or take away, your rank as a "proper and normal" conversationalist.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:32 PM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was you, fwiw.

The problem is social anxiety, even though it presents as something more sinister. Understand this: genuinely controlling/selfish people don't ask themselves these sorts of questions. They don't have the self-awareness, nor the desire to change. Assholes don't worry about whether they're assholes. Only nice people worry about being assholes. Assholes worry that they're too nice.

A lot of simmering down needs to happen. Tension and anxiety and social grippiness need to be relaxed, and it's not a quick undertaking, it's a slow hack. You've heard the usual tactics: tai chi, yoga, meditation. I do the latter, it's helped incomparably, and this is the most stripped-down, non-dogmatic, efficacious, non-joiny system of meditation I've ever found (that link's free, or else you can read a fuller treatment in this book).

If you're too jittery to meditate, my suggestion is that you study yoga asanas first. That facilitates "coarse" relaxation; meditation is finer-grained.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:58 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Try going out of your way to have conversations with people in situations where you feel like there is no reason to talk with them. Then you will have no script. You will sometimes find that they have interesting things to say anyway.

The best networking conversations I have had for work have been when I took someone up on the offer of having coffee or lunch despite feeling like there was no real reason for us to talk to each other. In each case I've been really nervous beforehand because I couldn't think of a way to shape the conversation, and I couldn't see how it could be obviously beneficial to either of us. But because of that, I spent a lot of time in the conversation just waiting to see where they would take it. And it was really cool and I felt open and energized and like we connected. Much more than when it was obvious to me in advance what the "point" of the conversation would be.
posted by lollusc at 2:57 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow. Thank you everyone for your feedback. You have all touched on aspects that I wasn't aware of, and I can say that after reading all these replies I've had a sharp reduction in my social anxiety now that some of this subconscious stuff has come to light. I'm feeling a lot more relaxed again. So score one for the collective mirror that is ask-metafilter!

Truthfully I didn't realize it is social anxiety; Quisp Lover and nicodine, it is relieving to put a name to it.

Quisp Lover thank you for your answer. I wasn't aware of it, but deep inside I felt very guilty about feeling so controlling, like I must be a bad person for wanting to control conversations, and so I was fighting my own insides on the matter. Removing that self-judgment is a weight off my shoulders, which then also makes me less likely to wish for control, interestingly enough.

Hermoine Granger, vienna, nicodine and lollusc, what nuanced insight. I do feel afraid that the conversation will go into territory I am not comfortable with, or will reveal me as an awkward alien; or I'm trying to predict and anticipate the conversation, and find 'the point' of the conversation, which often only reveals itself towards the end. Also I didn't realize that I was fearing the conversation would intentionally / unintentionally bring under scrutiny my life choices, but it's very true. Revealing those subconscious fears has helped me relax. There's a Winston Churchill quote in there somewhere.

rd45, hush, lesser shrew, thank you for your kind words. I don't have to be all things to all people. I didn't realize how much I was contorting myself in order to be a 'proper conversationalist' and it is nice to hear that some qualities that I judge myself for, like my passionate side, might even be appealing to some, and is not something I need to stuff down in order to be acceptable to others. I am hard on myself and my social failures, and I didn't realize that this criticism extended to judging myself for my base personality too. Thanks for helping me see that.

I typically don't really pick a best answer since I don't want to pre-select answers for whoever else might read this thread but I will this time since it was so helpful.

Sending (relaxed) appreciation your way, thank you metafilter.
posted by serenity soonish at 5:11 PM on September 14, 2014

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