I am always interested in the way people communicate. Take conversations, for example. For most people, a conversation is a fantastic opportunity to gain insights, get to know someone better, learn more, and generally exchange information. For a small percentage of the population though, a conversation is just a monologue, thinly disguised.
Being a talkaholic is a real problem for human relationships, and even more so for a leader. Sometimes a talkaholic can be helped if someone takes the time to explain, in a way that preserves their dignity, that for what they are doing to be called conversation, the other person has to be allowed to speak.
Often talkaholics have great wisdom, humour and skills but people avoid them or are driven away because they feel trapped by the endless torrent of words that bounce from one subject to the next without the natural breaks conversation needs. No matter how interesting these people are, it’s hard not to lose interest or feel irritated and annoyed simply because of the amount of time that goes by without the listener having room to respond. The tragedy of this is that not only does the talker lose out on knowing the listener, but the listener, having tuned out, also misses out on really knowing the talker, just because of overload.
Some time ago I was visiting a friend who had invited someone else around for dinner. Turns out the visitor had heard me speak at a leaders’ gathering and wanted to meet me. The guy greeted me warmly, saying how much he’d been looking forward to chatting with me. From that point, he held a monopoly on the conversation until a few hours later when he said goodbye knowing no more about me when he left than when he’d arrived. I wondered why he wanted to meet me as he clearly was not at all interested in hearing any other voice than his own.
That situation is not unusual, as you would know from your own engagements with talkaholics. The same scenario is played out in conversations across the planet by would-be leaders, colleagues or friends who don’t understand that a conversation must have at least two voices, and that listening is as much part of the dialogue as speaking is.
My friend John Clancy tells me that people who feel socially isolated or for some reason unheard, can be described as having Bedouin Syndrome. Much like those who travel for long periods of time without seeing anyone, people can lose (or never learn) the ability to follow the norms of conversation, resulting in a deep need on their behalf to be listened to, without grasping that their audience has the same need. The problem of loneliness and isolation is compounded when their rambling causes others to fear being nailed to the wall one too many times and, on seeing the talkaholic make a move in their direction, look for the nearest exit rather than be trapped again. It’s tough to be rejected, and all the more so when the solution is comparatively simple.
Bette Midler’s quote in the movie ‘Beaches’ sums it up so well. “But enough about me. What about you? What do you think of me?” The whole problem pivots around self- absorption, which is a very specific kind of insecurity. The talkaholic may be well developed in key areas such as leadership, business, caring professions, education, creativity, but their help and advice is not sought or they are constantly passed over for promotion because they drive people away by monopolising the conversation. It’s difficult for them to realise that the reason their skill sets cannot be used is because their social immaturity is destroying the very thing they long for, which is to be heard.
Even when they become aware of their tendency, it’s vital they be committed to the process of change because it’s a hard habit to break. No matter what is being discussed, unless they are vigilant, somehow the conversation gets dragged back to themselves. Even when they try to break free from their compulsion by asking a question, two sentences later they are at it again, telling you how your answer relates to them.
Talkaholism has to be dealt with on two fronts, one of which is internal and the other is external. If you are serious about stopping, here are some tips to help you work it through.
- Think about why you have to talk so much. Are you nervous? Do you feel that people don’t value you and you have to convince them? Do you feel as though you’re not being ‘heard’ when you express your thoughts and concerns? Some compulsive talking stems from childhood issues. Deal with them. Get counselling if you need to or simply begin to exercise the will power that breaking a habit requires.
- Conversation involves give and take, which is difficult without mutual respect. Develop your capacity for respecting other people, and you will be more mindful about listening to them.
- Maturity is shown in part by awareness of other people. Develop that awareness by thinking about them, asking questions and being genuinely interested in them. We learn so much more about our world through other people.
- Think about whether you’re trying to stave off things getting too personal, or too close for comfort, using talk to defend yourself against feelings you don’t want to have.
- Realise it’s important to communicate with other people, not just talk to them.
- When you get teased about it, which you will, don’t allow yourself to withdraw into rejection. Make a decision to change and go for it.
- Decide to listen to what they are saying, rather than be working on what you’re going to say next.
- Ask people who won’t humiliate or tease you to help you be aware when you are doing it again. Agree on a prearranged sign if you’ve gone on too long so that you can finish your sentence and stop without feeling too awkward.
- Say every second thing. This is more difficult than it sounds because having once said your bit, you have to pass over the next thing you wanted to say. Doing this is a great way to self-monitor because you may really want to engage over the topic you have to pass over. You become more discerning about what not to say, which helps when you allow yourself to speak about something you’re more interested in.
- Don’t try to impress people. Be interested in them and their lives. That’s a very attractive characteristic.
- Be aware of body language. When people start to glaze over, yawn, give ‘nothing’ answers, or abruptly break off the conversation by making an excuse to leave, don’t be angry or hurt, be aware that they felt they had no choice.
- Stop interrupting. Let the other person finish their train of thought, don’t finish it for them, or tell them why your situation is better/worse/more/less.
- Don’t feel you need to fill in the gaps. There are generally gaps in a chat. Unless they’re really long and awkward, let someone else jump in and fill the space.
- Slow down. You don’t have to say it all, all the time. You may want to tell your story, but gauge how long or short it should be according to the circumstances. You don’t always have to give the entire history of ‘he said/she said’. Sometimes it’s better to cut to the chase.
- Don’t ramble. When you’ve said it, stop talking.
- A good conversation is like a game of tennis. One serves the conversation, the other hits it back. If your response takes longer than three – five minutes, stop talking and give room for the other person to speak.
- Ask questions. People love to talk about themselves. Give them a chance to.
Conversation is so empowering for the listener and the speaker, when it’s done well. Leaders would do well to hone their skills on this area, because much of their leadership effective stands or falls on this key area.