Tips for being a better listener
February 9, 2016 4:33 PM   Subscribe

How to incentivize myself to talk about myself less? It turns out I love talking about myself (monologuing), but I want to love listening. Tell me your tips and tricks!

I have some kind of undiagnosed autism spectrum-type thing (as I've mentioned in a previous Ask). One of my characteristic behaviors is "monologuing". In other words, I have a habit of talking about myself and my interests long-windedly, and feeling like I "have to" get through whatever topic I've started talking about, even if it means interrupting others or derailing an existing conversation.

I'm well aware it's rude, and I'm usually even aware of when I'm doing it, but it just floods my brain with pleasure chemicals when I do it. I feel like a squirrel that's found a nut when I find an opening to talk about myself, my feelings, my experiences. It's just utter, delighted joy.

That is, until the inevitable flood of embarrassment and regret that comes after. I feel like I steamroll conversations, like I overshare personal details about myself that I wish I hadn't been open about, and I miss out on an opportunity to get to know my friends and loved ones better and become closer to them.

What I have is a very compelling incentive to do it: it feels amazing. What I need is something that will reward me for not doing it. Not just a disincentive or distraction against doing it (like a rule to count to 10 in my head before speaking, or self-punishment like snapping a rubber band against my wrist) and not a long-term goal, but an in-the-moment, positive incentive for being a good listener. Some kind of gamification might work, like "Ask X number of questions in a conversation" or "Learn X number of things in a conversation"? I'm not sure! Are you a serial monologuer who managed to reform yourself and if so, how did you do it? Or, do you have experience with children or adults with autism spectrum disorders, and if so, what are your tried-and-true tactics?
posted by robot cat to Human Relations (9 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Everyone is like this when they are young. The more experiences you have of fleeting joy and profound embarrassment, the more you will change. It's just the natural process of growing up. The only advice I can give you is don't run from those feelings of embarrassment.

The other thing is that you will get tired of hearing the same song over and over again. Putting on a new record is as easy as paying attention to something outside yourself.

I know you're looking for "tips and tricks", but really this is just plain old experience.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 5:03 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Well, you may monologue, but there are listeners out there who enjoy what you tell them.

If you like to expand your horizon with listening, think in terms of listening for stories others have to share. You could read a novel, watch a movie or a show, or you have a personalized story to listen to. Ask questions and people will open up. When I worked as a journalist, I always found that a perk of the job.

Good luck.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:06 PM on February 9, 2016

I love this bit from Paul Ford's essay How to Be Polite:
Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”
posted by AaRdVarK at 5:18 PM on February 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

That thing you love? That exhilaration of holding forth to an audience on the topic of your own thoughts, feelings and experiences?

Other people like that, too. They spend entire lifetimes learning and adventuring, and that rapt interviewer interest is so rarely spent on the ordinary and humble. Everyone's got stories of their hard-earned wisdom, joys and sorrows and expertise. But no one ever asks, beyond a few rote and perfunctory how-are-yous.

Give that gift to people. Learn how to encourage, because lots of people have been socialized to feel they aren't worthy of any spotlight. Give them a chance to speak their stories. Give that attention and respect, sincerely and freely, because it is a kindness.
posted by Lou Stuells at 5:26 PM on February 9, 2016 [10 favorites]

Everyone has one thing about them that is interesting. Try to casually find it out. Bonus points if you can ask for advice. Maybe say you're trying to get ideas for next year's vacation and wonder what was their favorite or most interesting vacation. Be careful about not going into a hardball interview mode but being sincerely curious about other people can let you learn really interesting things you never knew before.
posted by stray thoughts at 10:11 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a reformed conversation hog; it was something I mostly outgrew in my 20's. Don't stress it too much.

But I will say I have worked hard to cultivate good listening skills, and people tell me I'm a great listener. Once you become a better listener, you will notice how most people really suck at listening.

What I did to train myself to be a better listener was to imagine that I had a sore throat and couldn't talk, but I wanted the speaker to know I heard them, so I purposely maintained eye contact, nodded when I might have said something, smiled when they said something vaguely amusing, nod my head, etc.

Watch this clip from "The Office" to see exactly what NOT to do.

True story:a few years ago I was at TedBoston and I was chatting with the woman sitting next to me. In new people situations I consciously work very hard to be a good listener because then I don't get overwhelmed with ALL the people. So I'm having a little chat and the woman mentions she's one of the Ted speakers and she's really nervous, so I told her she knew where to see me in the audience, and I promised I'd always be giving her thumbs up and smiling.

She gets up and does this kick ass presentation, I mean, you would NOT have guessed this woman was nervous and when she was done she came over and hugged me, saying, "It worked! It worked! I kept looking for you and then I'd see you smiling and I felt SO MUCH BETTER!"

What I'm trying to say is that the positive feedback you will get from being a good listener is so much rewarding than the feeling you get when over-talking.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:09 AM on February 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Could you look on a conversation as being a tennis rally where you're trying to get the highest number of volleys/returns that you can? Each time you say something, you're lobbing the ball over the net to the other person and you score a point - then the other person has to say something for you to score again. Then you lob the ball back to them by saying something and stop because it's their turn in order to score your third point.

Wouldn't work if you met another monologuer, but would help create a more even balance in conversations. Or score extra points for taking a really short turn, or something.
posted by penguin pie at 7:38 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't always succeed at it, but I think when I'm being my best me I remember that everyone and everything is secretly amazing, and everybody contains their own incredible universe that they may be willing to give you a glimpse into if you show interest. When I can use that as my starting premise I find it a lot easier to want to listen and really hear what people are saying, because that's how you figure out what questions to ask and what unexpected things the person knows/thinks/has experienced ... I find that when I'm in this mindset, even if what a person is talking about isn't inherently relevant to me, it can still be fascinating - in a way, you're kind of learning about what it's like to be that person, and that actually can give you (or at least me) the kind of 'pleasure chemicals' you're describing.

For perhaps a more impersonal approach (though I don't think the two approaches are incompatible), I think I've said before that it can be helpful to imagine that you're in a computer game and the people you're talking to are the non-player characters. Your goal there isn't to inform the NPCs about you, but rather to ask them questions and find out what they know. Keep it low stakes and make a game of it, and take any little nugget of information or insight you get as a "win."
posted by DingoMutt at 8:15 AM on February 10, 2016

Seconding penguinpie's comment that it's easy to think of conversations as something you win (I have made the best contribution! I have told them something awesome! I have described a thing I did that makes me sound super-cool!) but the best conversations aren't a competition but a group art project. Not that you win by impressing the person (people) you're talking to, but that the two (or more) of you win over all other party conversations by being the best conversation in the room. How can we create the most interesting discussion? How can I learn something from this person? How can I make my point as briefly as possible so we have plenty of time to see what they think of it? How many back-and-forth moments can we have? Can I get them to say "ooh, that reminds me of a time when I..."?
posted by aimedwander at 8:16 AM on February 10, 2016

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