How can I stop dominating the conversation?
October 7, 2006 12:05 AM   Subscribe

Talking Too Much: Help me stop.

All my life I've been told I talk too much. As a result, people tend to perceive me as being self-important, uninterested in listening to other people, and generally annoying. I honestly don't see myself as any of those things.

I Do talk alot; it's usually because
(1) I know alot about a subject and would like to contribute to the conversation,
(2) I have a lot of questions and/or feel the need to explain myself, and
(3) I am unable to think inside my head, only out loud.

I have tried to inhibit my questions/comments/thoughts, but I only find myself forgetting what I was going to say or feeling like I'm trying to be someone I'm not.

I also like people to contribute lots of information/comments and don't mind when other people think aloud, but I don't meet many people who feel the same way about me. What can I do?
posted by mynameismandab to Human Relations (22 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I struggle with this sometimes. It takes a conscious effort to mark any sudden thoughts I have (or jot them down if I'm on a call) and hold them in until after the other person pauses or stops talking.

I experienced this earlier this evening during a conference call. It does sometimes frustrate me because I'll often forget something important during the wait, but I find I am improving at this new skill with practice.

As for talking too much in general... it's an art to distill your comments down to what's most relevant and appropriate. Sometimes talking too much about a subject is offputting because it seems like a dominance or superiority play.

Observe each situation; are people talking about a subject because they're genuinely interested, or because they're being social and trying to connect with each other? If I find myself in a social conversation where I'm obviously more knowledgable about something, I'll take a few minutes to judge the level of discourse and try to match it.

And then listen politely. Because people love that.
posted by empyrean at 12:21 AM on October 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have this tendency too, though I've worked to rein it in while at the same time retaining my general enthusiasm, fondness for storytelling, etc.

Keep in mind that being a good conversationalist is not necessarily in what you say -- it's in how you listen. This means truly accepting the fact that you're not automatically the most important person in the conversation -- yes, even if you have a lot of knowledge or enthusiasm about a topic. In fact, especially when you know a lot about a topic, take that as a cue to find out what others know. You may be surprised (and humbled) to find that you're not the only expert in the conversation.

It also means not privileging your concerns about forgetting what you are going to say over what somebody else actually is trying to say -- which means making the decision that you want to learn how to make a mental note of keeping your train of thought intact while someone else is talking, which is a skill that requires practice.

Think of it as the conversational equivalent of common courtesy. I'm sure you don't always walk through a door first, or grab food off other people's plates, or refuse to share a seat on public transportation, right? Talking is the same thing. So start verbally holding a door open for someone -- when you're about to make a statement, ask a question instead. Resist the temptation to take the words out of their mouth -- don't interrupt, and don't assume you know where they're going with what they're saying (this is probably my worst verbal habit); more often than not, you'll realize your assumption was wrong. Basically, make the decision that you will show your respect for others by share the verbal space equally -- you don't have to take up 80% of the air any more than you have to take up 80% of a bus seat. There's enough space to go around.
posted by scody at 12:50 AM on October 7, 2006 [13 favorites]

There are far worse faux pas than being too outgoing; I think most people would consider talkativeness itself to be a character strength, not a flaw. So are people noticing simply that you talk a lot, or that you steer the conversation towards your own interests a lot, or perhaps interrupt a lot? Based on how you said people perceive you, I'd guess that what they're noticing is that you're dominating the subject matter of conversations more than the contributions. I don't mean to suggest that you need any help "winning friends", but Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People still includes some great practical conversational advice that might be relevant to the particular challenge of tweaking your conversational style. One of his main suggestions is to ask questions about the other person's interests (and then make it clear that you listened!); that's probably the most foolproof way to seem (and be) more appreciative.

I'm generally not particularly verbose, but have had this problem when talking about geek stuff with friends and, in particular, my computer science professors. I'm usually better informed about current happenings in the tech world than them, and after killing a few too many conversations with digressions into topics they were unfamiliar with, started making a conscious effort to ask people about their opinions more often in conversations that made my geek-dar light up. Sometimes that means partially playing dumb about topics I know a lot about.

Regardless, I don't think there's any need to be self-conscious about this. Being an eager conversationalist is nothing to feel bad about.

Also, the limerick on your user page is hilarious.
posted by gsteff at 1:28 AM on October 7, 2006

Thanks for this question. I had to deal with this issue last night (after a few too many drinks or when I get excited about a particular subject I turn into Chatty Cathy). It's nice to know we aren't alone.
posted by Brittanie at 1:46 AM on October 7, 2006

Best answer: Sometimes people over-share because they gain confidence from the feedback of their audience. If this is you, reassure yourself that you don't need the acceptance of others to know you're smart/well-informed/funny.

Always consider your audience. Say the things you think will be meaningful to them, rather than what's meaningful to you.

Some people who are judicious with their expressions of opinion are regarded with respect when they do speak. They find themselves being asked for their thoughts.

And remember that sometimes you actually put yourself at a disadvantage by showing all your cards, especially in business. Practice judging the value of your thougts from the point of view of thers (in your internal dialog), and considering the things you hold back as what you know and they don't; you've got an edge. You may find it's more fun to smirk than talk.
posted by nadise at 3:32 AM on October 7, 2006 [2 favorites]

gsteff, the poster does not want to be told he's just fine the way he is; he's concerned and wants to change, and that's a good thing, because people who talk too much and dominate conversations are really annoying and other people avoid them.

As usual, scody is on the money.
posted by languagehat at 5:03 AM on October 7, 2006

Listen to scody. All is that you need to do is covered in that response. Dominating the conversation is never OK and is never perceived as a character strength. Helping the conversation along appropriately is considered a character strength. That is usually done with the most judicial use of conversation by oneself.

Again, head scody.
posted by qwip at 5:33 AM on October 7, 2006

For a little while, while you're building the skills to do this stuff automatically, you could impose some simple mechanical rules on your self, like at least two people have to say something between each of your comments, absolutely no cutting people off to make a point, allowing body language to make some of your comments (i.e. nodding when you previously would have said, "I agree, and what's more...", holding your hand out briefly/giving the floor to somebody who is obviously trying to interject but too shy to break into the flow of the conversation, widening your eyes when you previously would have said, "Really? That's so interesting. That reminds me of the time...").

If you feel like you're just going to burst from the information you're withholding, force yourself to ask a question instead (and not of the "did you know x?" type).

Practice listening really attentively - if you're the sort of person who talks back to the radio or tv, you can get some of this practice in private.
posted by joannemerriam at 5:43 AM on October 7, 2006 [2 favorites]

In my opinion, I'd say even more important than paying attention when it's the other person's chance to talk, is tonever ever interrupt them unless it's just to make an exclamation like "Wow" or "really?" Etc. If you are in a heated or excited conversation and you absolutely must, you can interject something like "I have a response to that, but I'll wait til you're finished."

I feel like if the other person knows they will be allowed to say everything on their mind and be treated respectfully when they're doing it, they will be more likely to extend the same courtesy to you and be more lenient.

I don't mind people who talk too much, but I tend to think poorly of them if they are always talking over or interrupting people. My boyfriend says it's almost a cultural thing, because in his family it's not a big deal, but in mine if you interrupt someone you're viewed as the rudest sort.

Just something to keep in mind.
posted by np312 at 7:18 AM on October 7, 2006

Best answer: (1) I know alot about a subject and would like to contribute to the conversation,
(2) I have a lot of questions and/or feel the need to explain myself

Ah, the hallmarks of a true geek. I fight these tendencies all the time and I've found that major thing to learn and remember is:

!!! Very few conversations are about information transfer. !!!

Most social conversations are about connecting with each other. An interesting topic helps to spice things up, but the important part for most people is that they feel engaged, respected, and known.

There are certain situations (mostly related to teaching, or hanging out with fellow geeks) where sharing everything you know and getting all of your questions answered are not ony appropriate, but expected of you. Social interactions are not one of these situations.

(3) I am unable to think inside my head, only out loud.

This is a trick you should probably learn.

Otherwise, what scody said.
posted by tkolar at 7:23 AM on October 7, 2006 [5 favorites]

Scody is wise. The bit I'd add is that, in social settings, you might paradoxically find it easier to first train yourself to remain nearly silent. Then, once the urge-to-blab impulse control is firmly in place, you can ease back into conversing.

By "nearly silent", I mean only murmer those little phrases that lubricate a conversation and reassure the others that you're listening and participating at some level. "Cool!" "Really?" "Yeah, I know exactly how you feel."

Social conversation isn't about exchanging information as much as connecting and affirming each other's existence. That needn't take many words, and others will be delighted to take up the airspace. I used to be a motormouth as a kid but got into the habit of being nearly silent in public, and it's actually easier to let the others do the work!

On preview, np312, it is cultural - New Yorkers do it all the time. In fact, it's almost rude not to interrupt - it's like you weren't paying attention.
posted by Quietgal at 7:48 AM on October 7, 2006

Do something physical to make yourself have to think before you speak: hold the inside of your lips or the tip of your tongue between your teeth, put your finger across your lips, anything like that that places some kind of physical barrier between speaking and the outside world - anything that you have to physically move before you can speak will do. These are normal-looking things that people often do when listening to someone else, but for you they can serve the purpose of a string tied around a finger - reminding you to never miss an opportunity to keep quiet. And try to catch yourself using the time someone else is talking to think about what you're going to say next, instead of listening to them (you can even pull on your ear lobe or something like that to remind yourself to listen). I have definitely found that some kind of physical, symbolic reminder like this can help you learn to adjust your mental processing.

And definitely what scody said.
posted by biscotti at 7:53 AM on October 7, 2006

I like scody's and nadise's advice. The first thing I thought when I read your post is that it might help to take #1 ("I know alot about a subject and would like to contribute to the conversation") less seriously. You could try being a laid-back contributor and see what happens. Maybe other people know a lot, too; or even if they know a little, it may be interesting. I know an overtalker who misses opportunities like this because he's so busy sharing.

As for thinking through verbalizing, what about 1) writing, which may be a good transition step toward thinking silently; 2) using some conversations as thinking sessions, and more as listening/sharing sessions? 3) focusing on helping the other talkers to do their thinking aloud?
posted by win_k at 7:54 AM on October 7, 2006

Hello? Me?

I'm like you too. I used to think that it was just my ADD, but it isn't.

Thanks to Scody and the rest for some really helpful ideas.
posted by k8t at 8:28 AM on October 7, 2006

Scody's right on, and I would add this:

I know alot about a subject and would like to contribute to the conversation

You don't know as much as you think you know. I'm not trying to be snarky here, I'm being honest - there are so many things to "know", and so many ways to know them, that unless something you know is truly binary (is that light on? Is the floor carpet or hardwood?), then there are always nuances and angles you can discover by listening to other people that can shed a new light on things you think you know well.
posted by pdb at 10:05 AM on October 7, 2006

Short answer: Don't interrupt.

Long answer, endorsing what scody said.
posted by Robert Angelo at 11:52 AM on October 7, 2006

Might be worth reading a book on body language, and in particular the things about taking turns to speak. People tend to look slightly away from the person they're talking to while speaking, and make direct eye contact when they've finished their piece and want the other person to reply.

If you don't do that "naturally", you might want to try just saying a couple of sentences of what you know about the subject, then stop talking and look directly at the other person.

However much you know about the subject, people don't really want to be lectured for long periods as part of a conversation: it's supposed to be a two-way thing.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:38 PM on October 7, 2006

I have an old friend who is like this. Almost to a pathological level. To the point where often, when I am talking to him on the phone, I will put the receiver down, go use the bathroom, come back and he is still going.

A friend in college told me once that I argued too much, even though I was often right. Don't know why, but I realized that he was right and I just stopped doing it and I noticed that my social interactions improved immensly. So maybe you just need an honest friend to tell you to stfu!
posted by vronsky at 2:16 PM on October 7, 2006

(2) I have a lot of questions

After asking one, close your mouth until the answer is finished. Instead of using that time to think about your next question, listen to what the other person is saying.
posted by ook at 2:44 PM on October 7, 2006

Best answer: Have you ever seen the show Cheers? Remember Cliff Claven? Whenever you find yourself running off at the mouth, stop, and mentally tell yourself, "Don't be a Claven".
posted by vronsky at 3:11 PM on October 7, 2006

Best answer: I'm posting this late, because as much as I agree with some of the techniques offered above, the social justifications to work seriously on this issue are not ones that I think are going to work for you, and I wanted to offer some other ideas, without derailing the thread early. Much as you may aspire to changing your behavior to be more polite, that's not enough to damp your internal urgency to blurt out what you know, in the excitement of the moment. And every time you do, you reinforce bad habits, and ones that put you at risk in many life situations.

You see, as a talker, it's more than likely that you are easy to decieve, and that you are quick to reveal to others how to successfully decieve you. If you want to have easier and better relationships, you need to become a better active listener, so that people don't bullshit you as much, or blow you off.

Active listening is a survival skill in any conversation. People rarely say exactly what they are thinking, even in their most unguarded moments. You, as a listener, have a lot to do, to understand both what is being said, and what is meant, not to mention what is being hidden, all in real time. You have to watch people's faces for tells, watch hands and body language for mis-directions and recognitions, watch eye movement for falsehood and concealment, and integrate this with what you are hearing. And you then have to frame further questions that elicit additional information, or that call for repeat of something already said, for comparison. In 95% of casual conversations had by the wisest people, they do very little of the talking. In business, the law, medicine, the military, and almost any other societal grouping, it is the people asking the questions that have the power, and the people answering that don't. In almost every conversational setting, it is the person asking questions that is directing the conversation, and the person answering them that is being led.

If you want to become persuasive, if you want to assume leadership, if you expect to avoid being conned, you absolutely have to shut up, and listen, not as a courtesy, but for the information and ideas you need to accomplish what you want to do in life.

I'm very concerned for you, that you think talking aloud is a good way of thinking. You must work on developing a mental dialogue, at becoming capable of formulating and conducting a progression of reasoned process, entirely in your own head, in order to have any control of your own ideas. Because if you develop much of your ideation by dialogue with others, you easily become the repository of other people's ideas and prejudices, and not your own.

Reading helps immensely with this. You need to put yourself on a good reading program, and stick to it, for a while, for the mental excercise and discipline it will bring you. When you get ideas from books, and develop the concepts internally, you are going a long way to help yourself think independently.
posted by paulsc at 12:26 AM on October 8, 2006 [11 favorites]

paulsc has it.

I often "talk out loud" on paper (or nowadays, in a file in my laptop, which I often don't even bother to save). When I think, I often have entire unvoiced dialogues. It's not that you have to change the way you think, necessarily, you just have to change that you're making the process audible to others.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:04 AM on October 8, 2006

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