ConversationHogsQ: Thank your for the recent post on listening. What practices do you recommend when you are in a conversation with someone who speaks almost the whole time? — Sasha

Sasha, thank you for the question. You are definitely not alone. This is an issue with which many people can relate.

Those who tend to dominate conversations might do so for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s their personality. Perhaps they have a lot to share. Perhaps they want attention. Perhaps they can’t stand a lull in the conversation. Perhaps it’s how they were raised.

Why they tend to speak so much doesn’t really matter. Rather, there are two points to remember here:

First, their speaking is not intentional—they are not consciously choosing to talk on and on—which means they are not intentionally dominating you or the conversation.

Second, it’s likely they’re not even aware of talking too much because they are so used to doing it. It’s a bit like breathing—you don’t notice your breathing until you suddenly can’t.

This means that the key to dealing with this behavior is to somehow bring it to his or her attention. While I can provide some ideas to consider, without knowing you or the other person involved, my advice might not match your reality. With that caveat, here is my thinking:

  1. Don’t think less of the other person because their conversational pattern doesn’t work. We all have some flaw to overcome in how we communicate.
  2. Don’t give up on the possibility of having good conversations with this person: the correlation between conversation and relationship is high. If this is an employee or friend, settling for less is not an option.
  3. Continue to demonstrate focused listening—attentive and patient. Good role modeling can have an impact. Check out Brenda Ueland’s article, Tell Me More” which makes this point powerfully.
  4. Raise the volume and drama in your verbal/nonverbal indications that you are listening. That is, make more eye contact, lean in, and make your verbal responses more pronounced. (Got it! Okay! Yes!) This will disrupt the automaticity in their speaking.
  5. Interrupt when it is appropriate. I’m a big fan of cutting back on interrupting in conversations, yet this is one situation where it can add value. Since you’re unlikely to be given any breaks in which to enter the conversation, make the breaks yourself.
  6. Ask permission to say something. People who speak all the time are often not aware of other people waiting to get into the conversation. Asking for permission to speak will change their awareness and just might produce listening.
  7. Ask questions that cause them to think. People who speak easily and at length can do so without thinking about what they are saying. Ask them questions to go deeper and cover areas they don’t normally talk about. It will lead to a different conversation.
  8. Lastly, if this is a close friend or esteemed colleague, have a conversation over coffee and explain that you value the relationship but that the conversations feel one sided—that you would appreciate it if he or she would speak about 15 percent less and listen more. If you are committed and care about the other person, this is a gift. If you aren’t committed or close, then the appropriate choice is to let it go and make the current conversational style work—no whining!

On the flip side, are you speaking too often or too long? Do you have people around you that don’t speak or get into the conversation? Do people seem disinterested or non-attentive when you speak? If yes, then find a way to remind yourself to speak less and put your attention on listening to others. Click here to delve a little deeper with Mark Gouston’s HBR article, “How to Know If You Talk Too Much.”

To some people, listening means impatiently waiting for a place to insert, “that reminds me.”  —Ivern Ball