You don’t. And you’re also steering the focus away from someone who probably just wants to be heard. Here’s how to be a more considerate conversation partner, says radio host and writer Celeste Headlee.
A good friend of mine lost her dad some years back. I found her sitting alone outside our workplace, just staring at the horizon. She was absolutely distraught, and I didn’t know what to say to her. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving and vulnerable.
So I started talking about how I grew up without a father. I told her my dad had drowned in a submarine when I was only nine months old and I’d always mourned his loss, even though I’d never known him. I wanted her to realize that she wasn’t alone, that I’d been through something similar and I could understand how she felt.
But after I related this story, my friend snapped, “Okay, Celeste, you win. You never had a dad and I at least got to spend 30 years with mine. You had it worse. I guess I shouldn’t be so upset that my dad just died.”
I was stunned and mortified. “No, no, no,” I said, “that’s not what I’m saying at all. I just meant I know how you feel.”
And she answered, “No, Celeste, you don’t. You have no idea how I feel.”
Often subtle and unconscious, conversational narcissism is the desire to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself.
She walked away and I stood there feeling like a jerk. I had wanted to comfort her and, instead, I’d made her feel worse. When she began to share her raw emotions, I felt uncomfortable so I defaulted to a subject with which I was comfortable: myself. She wanted to talk about her father, to tell me about the kind of man he was. She wanted to share her cherished memories. Instead, I asked her to listen to my story.
From that day forward, I started to notice how often I responded to stories of loss and struggle with stories of my own experiences. My son would tell me about clashing with a kid in Boy Scouts, and I would talk about a girl I fell out with in college. When a coworker got laid off, I told her about how much I struggled to find a job after I had been laid off years earlier. But when I began to pay more attention, I realized the effect of sharing my experiences was never as I intended. What all of these people needed was for me to hear them and acknowledge what they were going through. Instead, I forced them to listen to me.
Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency as “conversational narcissism.” Often subtle and unconscious, it’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking, and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. Derber writes that it “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America.”
He describes two kinds of responses in conversations: a shift response and a support response. The first shifts attention back to yourself, and the second supports the other person’s comment.
Example number 1:
The shift response
Mary: I’m so busy right now.
Tim: Me, too. I’m totally overwhelmed.
The support response
Mary: I’m so busy right now.
Tim: Why? What do you have to get done?
Example number 2:
The shift response
Karen: I need new shoes.
Mark: Me, too. These things are falling apart.
The support response
Karen: I need new shoes.
Mark: Oh yeah? What kind are you thinking about?
Shift responses are a hallmark of conversational narcissism — they help you turn the focus constantly back to yourself. But a support response encourages the other person to continue their story. It lets them know you’re listening and interested in hearing more.
We can craftily disguise our attempts to shift focus — we might start a sentence with a supportive remark and then follow up with a comment about ourselves.
The game of catch is often used as a metaphor for conversation. In an actual game of catch, you’re forced to take turns. But in conversation, we often find ways to resist giving someone else a turn. Sometimes, we use passive means to subtly grab control of the exchange.
This tug-of-war over attention is not always easy to track. We can very craftily disguise our attempts to shift focus. We might start a sentence with a supportive comment, and then follow up with a comment about ourselves. For instance, if a friend tells us they just got a promotion, we might respond by saying, “That’s great! Congratulations. I’m going to ask my boss for a promotion, too. I hope I get it.”
Such a response could be fine, as long as we allow the focus to shift back to the other person again. However, the healthy balance is lost when we repeatedly shine the attention back on ourselves.
While reciprocity is an important part of any meaningful conversation, the truth is shifting the attention to our own experiences is completely natural. Modern humans are hardwired to talk about themselves more than any other topic. One study found that “most social conversation time is devoted to statements about the speaker’s own emotional experiences and/or relationships, or those of third parties not present.”
The insula, an area of the brain deep inside the cerebral cortex, takes in the information that people tell us and then tries to find a relevant experience in our memory banks that can give context to the information. It’s mostly helpful: the brain is trying to make sense of what we hear and see. Subconsciously, we find similar experiences and add them to what’s happening at the moment, and then the whole package of information is sent to the limbic regions, the part of the brain just below the cerebrum. That’s where some trouble can arise — instead of helping us better understand someone else’s experience, our own experiences can distort our perceptions of what the other person is saying or experiencing.
The more comfortable you are, the more difficult it is to empathize with the suffering of another.
A study from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences suggests that our egos distort our perception of our empathy. When participants watched a video of maggots in a group setting, they could understand that other people might be repulsed by it. But if one person was shown pictures of puppies while the others were shown the maggot video, the puppy viewer generally underestimated the rest of the group’s negative reaction to the maggots.
Study author Dr. Tania Singer observed, “The participants who were feeling good themselves assessed their partners’ negative experiences as less severe than they actually were. In contrast, those who had just had an unpleasant experience assessed their partners’ good experience less positively.” In other words, we tend to use our own feelings to determine how others feel.
Here’s how that translates to your daily conversations: Let’s say you and a friend are both laid off at the same time by the same company. In that case, using your feelings as a measure of your friend’s feelings may be fairly accurate because you’re experiencing the same event. But what if you’re having a great day andyou meet a friend who was just laid off? Without knowing it, you might judge how your friend is feeling against your good mood. She’ll say, “This is awful. I’m so worried that I feel sick to my stomach.” You’d respond, “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay. I was laid off six years ago and everything turned out fine.” The more comfortable you are, the more difficult it is to empathize with the suffering of another.
It took me years to realize I was much better at the game of catch than I was at its conversational equivalent. Now I try to be more aware of my instinct to share stories and talk about myself. I try to ask questions that encourage the other person to continue. I’ve also made a conscious effort to listen more and talk less.
Recently, I had a long conversation with a friend who was going through a divorce. We spent almost 40 minutes on the phone, and I barely said a word. At the end of our call, she said, “Thank you for your advice. You’ve really helped me work some things out.”
The truth is, I hadn’t offered any advice. Most of what I said was a version of “That sounds tough. I’m sorry this is happening to you.” She didn’t need advice or stories from me. She just needed to be heard.
Excerpted with permission from the new book We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter by Celeste Headlee. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. © 2017 Celeste Headlee.
(1) Celeste Headlee
Leave the future alone until it comes . . .
“The event (the Hour or the punishment of disbelievers and polytheist or the Islamic laws or the commandments), ordained by Allah will come to pass, so seek not to hasten it”
Do not hasty and rushed for things that have yet to come to pass. Do you think it is wise to pick the fruits before it is ripe? Tomorrow is non-exist, having no reality today, so why should you busy yourself with it? Why should you have apprehensions about future disasters? Why should you be engrossed by their thought, especially since you do not know whether you will even see tomorrow?
The important thing to note is that tomorrow is from the world of the unseen, a bridge that we do not cross until it comes. Who knows, perhaps we might never reach the bridge, or the bridge might collapse before we reach it, or we may actually reach it and cross safely.
For us to be so engrossed in expectations about the future is looked down upon in our religion since it leads to us having a long-term attachment to this world, an attachment that the good believer shuns. Many people of this world are unduly fearful of the future poverty, hunger, disease, and disaster: such thinking is inspired by the Devil.
“Satan threatens you with poverty and orders you to commit Fahsha (evil deeds, illegal sexual intercourse, sins,etc.), whereas Allah promises you Forgiveness from Himself and Bounty . . .”
-Quran @:268 –
Many are those who cry because they see themselves starving tomorrow, falling sick after a month, or because they fear that the world will come to an end after a year. Someone who has no clues as to when he will die (which is all of us) should not busy himself with such thoughts.
Since you are absorbed with the affairs or today, leave tomorrow until it comes. Beware of becoming unduly attached to future prospects of this world for life is temporary and the present is what we truly have.
For tomorrow may never come . . . for at least for you that is.
Instead of spending your days complaining, you might try changing your workplace from within, says leadership expert Simon Sinek.
Simon Sinek now spends his days helping people create inspiring workplaces, but he found this calling only after experiencing profound professional despair. “I hated waking up in the morning,” he recalls. “I was no fun anymore, and I became paranoid.” His lack of fulfillment was due to a misalignment between his purpose — what he calls his “why” — and his job. Despite being someone who believes that people should only do jobs they love, Sinek does not advocate simply leaving a so-so job.“The opportunity to quit is always there, but I don’t recommend doing it until you exhaust all the other avenues,” he says. In a Facebook Live conversation at TED’s NYC headquarters in September, he shared the steps he advises people to take before throwing in the towel.
1. If your boss or work environment are abusive, leave immediately.
2. If your boss or work environment aren’t abusive and you’ve been there for only a few months, hold off on giving notice.
“If I were to offer some advice to people, it’s that sometimes they make the decision to leave too quickly. They show up, start working and after four months, they’re like, ‘This is not for me.’ However, it takes around six months for anyone to settle into a job.”
3. If you’ve been there for more than six months, try to figure out what’s wrong. For starters, check your attitude.
“People can come in with the attitude that ‘Work is just for work, and I find fulfillment in other places.’ Which means they’re showing up half-hearted and not committed, they’re acting like this job is just a means to an end. And guess how they’re going to be treated? If you show up just to check in and check out, because you get your fulfillment somewhere else, then you’ll be labelled as such. No one’s going to be looking after you and watching out for your career.”
4. Consider the other possibilities.
“Uncover what it is exactly that’s not sticking. Is it your coworkers? Your boss? The job itself?”
5. If you have a difficult boss, try a little empathy.
“When a boss is particularly hard in a meeting, yelling at people or being short with them, you can walk into their office, close the door and say, ‘Hey, you were really short with us in the meeting. Are you OK?’ You don’t have to use those words, but you want to get across that you think they’re acting out of character and you want to check on them. Sometimes it gets them to open up. It might not happen immediately, and maybe they won’t open to you, but it can be an impetus for them to open up to someone.
6. Treat your boss like a person, not a problem.
“The other thing you can do is to inquire about your boss as a human being, saying something like, ‘Can we start this meeting by talking about what we did this weekend? We can learn a little bit about each other. Hey, [Boss’s name], what did you do this weekend?’ We can be so quick to criticize bad leaders, yet they’re human, too, and they want to feel heard and feel like they belong. We don’t know why they’re bad leaders — maybe they’re under stress or pressure, maybe they don’t realize that they’re bad, or maybe they’re just bastards. But we have to give them the benefit of the doubt first.”
7. If that doesn’t work, then be the leader you wish you had.
“We might be the most junior person in the organization, but we still work with people. We can occupy ourselves with helping them go home fulfilled, that they feel heard, that they feel someone has their back. If you commit yourself to being the leader you wish you had and see your friends and colleagues love their work, it actually affects leadership, believe it or not. We’ve seen it happen; it’s kind of amazing. You can build a little subculture. We worked with a large software company, and we helped just a small group in the company build a stronger culture. And they started getting phone calls from all across this company wanting to find out if there were any jobs available in this group. Everybody wants in! Commit yourself to being a leader you wish you had, and building that subculture.”
8. Know this process doesn’t happen overnight.
“It’s going to take time, like any relationship. Some people might be suspicious at the start. I find being open about it allays some of the suspicions. You could say something like, ‘Hey, guys, I wish we had a stronger culture here’ or ‘We can complain about our culture until we’re blue in the face, so I’m going to try and contribute to building a culture for us so we come to work and feel fulfilled and hopefully we’ll have an impact on those around us.’”
9. If you’re still certain you want to quit, put your energy into growing — not griping.
“For my first job out of school, I had a terrible boss — just terrible! So I committed myself to learn how not to lead, and I actually got a lot out of it because I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to do that one day.’ I also made incredibly good friends with the people with whom I worked, because misery loves company. We all took care of each other, and we learned teamwork from camaraderie. I was learning leadership at a very junior level. And when opportunities arose, I moved on. So there are ways to work at a job you don’t like without complaining every day. Try and seek the advantages and the lessons you can learn.”
10. Never settle for a job that’s just “good enough.”
“I think one of the biggest mistakes our counselors and parents is telling us, ‘Find a job.’ Nobody ever says, ‘Find a job you love.’ People are often told that they don’t need to find a job that’s fulfilling because they can find fulfillment elsewhere. But that’s like saying you don’t have to love the person you marry, because you can get that somewhere else. That’s not going to set you up for a great marriage; it’s the same thing with a job. You’re going to spend more time at work than being with your family or friends or doing anything else. So you should absolutely find a job you love.”
 Simon Sinek
“Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:
At the first gate, ask yourself “Is is true?”
At the second gate ask, “Is it necessary?”
At the third gate ask, “Is it kind?”
The precious wisdom being expressed here is the importance of anticipating how our words are going to be received by the person with whom we are speaking. As we interact with family members, friends, colleagues, community partners, etc. today, let’s try being extra mindful of what we say. Thinking first about who we are speaking to, what their needs and concerns are, and how our words can communicate empathy, compassion and understanding.
Let’s be mindful of what we say, to avoid any unintended consequences.
“Life has bigger plans for you than you can possibly know.”
“A burning sense of passion is the most potent fuel for your dreams.”
“In order to awaken your best life, it’s important that you “die while you are alive.” Most people live as if they have all the time in the world. They wish they had more time in their days and yet they waste the time they have. They put off living until some event in the future occurs. In order to awaken to your best life, every day should be lived as if it were your last day on the planet.”
“If you want to improve your life and live with all that you deserve, you must run your own race. It doesn’t matter what other people say about you. What is important is what you say to yourself, being comfortable in your own skin. Be true to you. That’s a key source of happiness.”
“Remarkable people are priority-driven. This is the secret of time mastery. Build your days around your priorities and you will play in rare air.”
“certain things. It comes when you think certain”
“It’s better to be a lion for a day than a sheep all your life.”
“The best antidote for fear is knowledge.”
“Act as if failure is impossible, and your success will be assured. Wipe out every thought of not achieving your objectives, whether they are material or spiritual.”
“One of the timeless secrets to a long, happy life is to love your work. The golden thread running through the lives of history’s most satisfied people is that they all loved what they did for a living. When psychologist Vera John-Steiner interviewed one hundred creative people, she found they all had one thing in common: an intense passion for their work. Spending your days doing work that you find rewarding, intellectually challenging and fun will do more than all the spa vacations in the world to keep your spirits high and your heart engaged.”
“Most people believe that it takes months and years to transform their lives. Actually, you can literally change your life in an instant by making a single decision never to go back to the way you have been living—no matter what. What takes months, years and sometimes decades is the maintenance required to live by that decision.”
“To risk is to live.”
“The things that get committed to paper are the things that are committed to in life. And the things that get scheduled are the things that get done.”
“decide to be brilliant at what you do. And in how you live.”
“We live in an age when we have forgotten what life is all about.”
“when you were born, you cried while the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die the world cries while you rejoice.” We live in an age when we have forgotten what life is all about.”
“You can find your cause—your crusade—exactly where you are. No one has to leave a job to find something to engage their heart and excite them. Often all that is required is that a person see things differently. And to take that first step. Today.”
“Success cannot be pursued; success ensues. It flows as the unintended byproduct of efforts concentrated in the direction of a worthy cause.”
“All progress comes from unreasonable people, people who follow their hearts and the instructions of their consciences rather than the commands of the crowd. All progress has come from risk-takers and men and women who were willing to visit the places that scared them. Greatness arrives once you refuse to buy into what others see as impossible.”
“You are what you think about all day long. You are also what you say to yourself all day long. If you say that you are old and tired, this mantra will be manifested in your external reality. If you say you are weak and lack enthusiasm, this too will be the nature of your world. But if you say that you are healthy, dynamic and fully alive, your life will be transformed. Words have remarkable power.”
“Success lies in being true to yourself—and living life on your own terms.”
“July 25 Suffering in life is really nothing more than the difference between the way things are and the way you imagine they should be. If you can come to accept the blessings of your present reality without always feeling that your life is hollow as compared to the lives of others, you will have taken a quantum leap toward becoming a happier, more peaceful person.”
“The people who get on in life are those who dream big dreams and then take whatever risks are necessary to bring their vision to life. They face their fears directly, get into the game and live their days with courage. They break through their fear doors, no matter how scared they feel. It’s better to be a lion for a day than a sheep all your life.”
“You truly cannot afford the luxury of even one negative thought. A worrisome thought is like an embryo: it starts off small but grows and grows. Soon it takes on a life of its own. Stop feeding what doesn’t serve you.”
“And no matter what you are experiencing in your life right now, trust that all is good and unfolding in your best interests. It may not look pretty, but it is exactly what you need to learn for you to grow into the person you have been destined to become.”
“Most of us live as if we have an infinite amount of time to do all the things we know we must do to live a full and rewarding life. And so we procrastinate and put the achievement of our dreams on hold while we tend to those daily emergencies that fill up our days. This is a certain recipe for a life of regret. Commit yourself to managing your time more effectively. Develop a keen sense of awareness about how important your time really is. Don’t let people waste this most precious of commodities, and invest it only in those activities that truly count.”
“When you form the habit of searching for the positive in every circumstance, your life will move into its highest dimensions.”
“Newborn children represent perfection and the state of being to which each of us is duty-bound to return. In the instant after you were born, you were fearless, pure love, innocent, infinitely wise, of boundless potential and beautifully connected with the unseen hand that created the universe. Most of us on the planet today have lost this connection to our authentic selves, this original state of being in which we were unafraid to walk toward possibility and reach for the stars. We have forgotten who we are.”
“Knowledge is only potential power. For the power to be manifested, it must be applied. Most people know what they should do in any given situation, or in their lives, for that matter. The problem is that they don’t take daily, consistent action to apply the knowledge and realize their dreams.”
“Get into the arena, forget about the critics and play big with the gifts of your days. If you listen to your critics, you will never do anything great with your life. Life is short and the years will slip away very quickly, like grains of sand passing through your fingers on a hot day at the beach. You were meant to shine and let your talents see the light of day.”