I confuse people (and get frustrated) when I switch between subjects.
September 8, 2017 4:07 PM   Subscribe

I've always struggled with getting a word in edgewise, and it gets especially frustrating when multiple subjects come up in conversation. I then feel the need to backtrack and clarify everything, and often my frustration gets in the way and makes it even more confusing. How can I get better at making it clear who/what I am talking about at a given moment? How can I switch subjects more clearly...and without frustration?

It's especially frustrating when the subjects of the discussion are people, i.e. two cousins who both happen to be optometrists and both live in Chicago. I feel the need to go back and explain who is who, and often get unnecessarily frustrated. "No, you're thinking of my other cousin who is also an optometrist!"
posted by Seeking Direction to Human Relations (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Reporters tend to carry little notebooks. When a new topic comes up that's off the main, they make a little note. Then, there's not anxiety to respond to the new aspect of the main topic, which itself can be a huge left turn. When the speaker is finished, you have all of your thoughts right there. It's not how a conversation normally goes, but then, in conversations with a lot of emotions or moving parts, a traffic management tool like notes are very helpful.
posted by CollectiveMind at 4:15 PM on September 8, 2017

Okay, so I'm not a psychologist/therapist, and I think one of those two might help here. But, in general, conversations happen without all the facts and there is a general acceptance of a certain amount of fuzziness. There is basically this agreement that the things being said are correct enough and there is a very thin window in which it is okay to correct them. If the conversation's been going on for a while, you can't really rewind to reevaluate the premises, you basically have to just let it go.

You can however, sneak a correction in as an aside. If people have been talking about things that happened to Tim the optometrist for a few minutes, but they've been calling him Bob (who is a different optometrist), you can wait until you have something to add to the conversation (something that you would add even if people hadn't been misnaming Tim) and say "Oh, I think you're talking about Tim! Yeah, he did go to Aruba for an exchange last year, and I heard that he's been missing their beer ever since!"

The idea being that you are making the correction in passing while continuing the conversation, rather than stopping the conversation to make a correction.
posted by 256 at 4:18 PM on September 8, 2017 [14 favorites]

Reporters tend to carry little notebooks. When a new topic comes up that's off the main, they make a little note.

I do something like this--when someone drops something in a meeting and continues talking and I know I won't respond for ten minutes, I put a little square next to the note.

As long as those little squares don't have X's in them, they are pending questions. I do the same thing with points to bring up, caveats to add, etc. And then I say 'to go back to the earlier reference to WhatNot I wanted to follow up...'

Because I have no short term memory and little verbal dexterity.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:31 PM on September 8, 2017 [9 favorites]

I get this - I also sometimes struggle to get into a conversation, but often have a great fact or anecdote that would be perfect. What I have done is work on letting go of the previous subjects of conversation. There's really no way to insert a fact/clarification/anecdote on a previous subject of conversation that isn't weird and awkward. And the truth is, it probably doesn't matter that much if it's just conversation. You can be more insistent (and barge into the conversation more insistently) if a decision is being made on the basis of incorrect information.

Going forward - work on your skills for getting into the conversation. For those of us raised not to interrupt, this can be challenging, because sometimes you have to talk over someone a little bit, and stand your ground, but if you observe someone you consider a skillful conversationalist you will see them do this without hesitation. And what's more, you will probably realise this does not make them a bad/pushy/rude person if it is done appropriately.
posted by Cheese Monster at 4:37 PM on September 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Everyone seems to have different conversational pacing and mental rules around conversation, and I think that's part of it. I'm unwilling to interrupt, and I like a little space of silence between remarks, so with people who are used to conversations where everyone talks over each other, or who are anxious during silence and therefore chatter a lot, or are unaware of little cues that other people are waiting for their chance to speak, I have trouble getting much in. Sometimes I get quite frustrated at this, but I try to observe it without being critical of myself or others ... with middling results.

A good rule of thumb might be to allow yourself to interrupt for important corrections. To determine what is important you might ask yourself "what is worst that could happen for letting this error continue?" If it means that someone unknowingly ingests peanuts when they have an allergy, interrupt away. If it means that they might think that Sarah's skirt was a rose pink when in fact it was fuchsia - something they are likely to forget within an hour anyway, you can relieve yourself of the responsibility of clearing up their error.

Also, sometimes when you give people a certain look with your head tilted and eyebrows wrinkled in confusion, they will stop and allow you to interject.
posted by bunderful at 5:11 PM on September 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yes, there are some visual signals one can make when you feel something someone else is saying needs correcting. Shaking your head, gently wagging a finger, or a noticeable change of expression are some methods that are obvious enough to often allow space made for your claim.

I also would agree with the suggestions that gauging the importance of a correction to the audience is something worth looking at more carefully. If I were talking to someone, even a friend, and they were telling me some anecdote about their cousins in Chicago, I really wouldn't invest much energy into figuring out who was who or in trying to remember much about them in detail if it was unlikely I'd ever need that knowledge again in any direct fashion. The details of other people's distant relatives isn't really useful information for me to carry, so I'm not concerned enough about the accuracy to want to wade through the info again to have any mistakes corrected. Better in some instances to just let go any minimal errors that couldn't be corrected in the moment rather than return to them, rewinding the conversation.

If the need for clarity in discussing the two cousins would be felt more necessary, then finding better descriptions for them that vary in significant detail would help. Using their relationship to you and occupations as primary method of identity increases the possibility of confusion, instead describe each by some other notable attribute that better differentiates them. If their careers must come up referring to where they work rather than the title of their job might help, anything to reduce duplication.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:43 PM on September 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Don't use pronouns, "so then he said he would meet him when he got a call from him." No one can track who's who, but " so then the older cousin said he'd meet the realtor when he got a call from the younger cousin."
posted by at at 10:43 PM on September 8, 2017

As for the logistics of your question - try summarizing the story at certain parts, if it's a long one. That works for me. Also consider why you want the listener to hear X, what's important for them to know about it, why you want them to know it. If you have a goal in mind before you communicate your story (emotions, actions, behavior, events, etc.), your thoughts will be more organized and your listener will follow you better. If you were going to write this down, how would you structure it? If you had no chance to convey anything but words on paper? That forces you to get more clear.

I remember learning how to drive, and getting on the highway for the first time, and how scary it was to merge in between the other cars. It was terrifying, it was exhilarating. It required confidence, presence, commitment, a bit of risk, good timing, intuition, and caution. It was also a huge lesson in saying, "I'm here, world. I have a place. I own that." Sometimes, when I'm in a room of intelligent people and I can't get a word in edgewise, I feel like the Honda merging in front of the Mercedes. Good debaters are just masterful at merging, so to speak. Sometimes you just have to put your foot on the gas and go for it, though. I like asking "Why?" because it's short, it gets peoples' attention, and it invites the person to speak directly to me, which gives me an "in" to talk more and learn something new in the process. It's quite useful.

People often sense when you want to jump in; others have given good suggestions above. And if they don't, honestly if it happens that frequently I'd find new friends. When it becomes the Joe Show, it gets boring. If no one lets me in, that means they don't want to hear me speak. In my group of friends, we'll actually ask whoever is quiet what they think. It's like it's implicitly understood that not everyone gets a chance to speak, and it's just polite to do that. Our group is close knit, though, so maybe it's different? We talk about politics, women's issues, social justice, that sort of thing. Discussions get fast paced and it's often hard to get a word in edgewise. But not because of exclusion - just because it's a hot topic. Eventually we circle to everyone at the table, though, because we genuinely want to hear what everyone has to say.
posted by onecircleaday at 11:40 PM on September 8, 2017

When you do dive into the conversation, fight the urge to be concise. Lead with a phrase that indicates that you may be circling back a bit. "I lost track, which cousin was the eye doctor." "Wait, did we actually decide to go for BBQ, or is sushi still in the running?"

Also, if it doesn't matter just let it do. As noted above, the typical conversation leaves a lot of loose ends.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:51 AM on September 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

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