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The Art of Conversation: How to Avoid Conversational Narcissism

Last month I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in forever to have lunch. Having both read and written about how to be an effective and charismatic conversationalist, I followed the old dictum of listening more than talking and asking the other person engaging questions about themselves. This is supposed to charm your conversation partner. I guess it worked because my friend talked about himself for an hour straight and didn’t ask me a single question.

When we’ve talked about the ins and outs of making good conversation before, someone inevitably asks, “But what if both people keep trading questions back and forth?” Well, that’s a pretty good problem to have, but I’ve yet to see it happen. Instead, most folks seem to struggle with asking any questions at all and have a very difficult time relinquishing the floor.

In a time where a lot of the old social supports people relied upon have disappeared, people have become starved for attention. They bring this hunger to their conversations, which they see as competitions in which the winner is able to keep the attention on themselves as much as possible. And this is turning the skill of conversation-making into a lost art.

Conversational Narcissism

In The Pursuit of Attention, sociologist Charles Derber shares the fascinating results of a study done on face-to-face interactions, in which researchers watched 1,500 conversations unfold and recorded how people traded and vied for attention. Dr. Derber discovered that despite good intentions, and often without being aware of it, most people struggle with what he has termed “conversational narcissism.”

Conversational narcissists always seek to turn the attention of others to themselves. Your first reaction to this statement is likely, “Oh, I don’t do that, but I know someone who does!” But not so fast. Conversational narcissism typically does not manifest itself in obviously boorish plays for attention; most people give at least some deference to social norms and etiquette. Instead, it takes much more subtle forms, and we’re all guilty of it from time to time. Everyone has felt that itch where we couldn’t wait for someone to stop talking so we could jump in; we pretended to be listening intently, but we were really focusing on what we were about to say once we found an opening.

So today we’re going to discuss the ways in which conversational narcissism creeps into our interactions with others. While it may seem a bit strange that conversations can be analyzed this deeply, Dr. Derber’s research is filled with some really brilliant insights that will help you see how a conversation unfolds and how you can easily fall into the conversational narcissism trap. I know it did for me.

The Unsurpassed Pleasure of a Good Old Fashioned Conversation

Before we get into the forms that conversational narcissism takes, let’s take a minute to discuss why you should even care about the health of your conversations in the first place.

You probably know how mastering the art of conversation is an invaluable tool in building your charisma and networking with others, whether it comes to business or pleasure. But it’s also a vital part of fulfilling a deep human need we have as social animals.

Have you ever had a night out with friends, maybe you met up at a new restaurant, had a few beers, and ended up talking and laughing the night away? As you walked to your car, I bet your brain felt positively aglow with a warm sensation of deep satisfaction and pleasure. That’s the effect a great conversation can have on you. Absorbing conversations truly add happiness and richness to our lives.

But the enjoyment of a good conversation is becoming more of a rarity these days. In our time of cell phones, text messaging, and emails, we’re having less face-to-face interactions, and thus when we do meet up with people in the flesh, our social skills can be a bit rusty. So we can all use some brushing up on the art of conversation and how to make great conversations a more frequent occurrence in our lives.

Conversations: Competition vs. Cooperation

“The quality of any interaction depends on the tendencies of those involved to seek and share attention. Competition develops when people seek to focus attention mainly on themselves; cooperation occurs when the participants are willing and able to give it.” -Dr. Charles Derber

A good conversation is an interesting thing; it can’t be a solely individual endeavor—it has to be a group effort. Each individual has to sacrifice a little for the benefit of the group as a whole and ultimately, to increase the pleasure each individual receives. It’s like a song where the rhythm is paramount, and each person in the group must contribute to keeping that rhythm going. One person who keeps on playing a sour note can throw the whole thing off.

That’s why it’s so important that conversations are cooperative instead of competitive. But many people (and Dr. Derber argues, Americans especially, because of our culture of individual initiative, self-interest, and self-reliance) make conversations into competitions. They want to see if they can get the edge on the other people in the group by turning the attention to themselves as much as possible. This is accomplished through the subtle tactics of conversational narcissism.

How Conversational Narcissism Manifests Itself

So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. How does conversational narcissism rear its head and derail what could have been a great face-to-face interaction?

During a conversation, each person makes initiatives. These initiatives can either be attention-giving or attention-getting. Conversational narcissists concentrate more on the latter because they are focused on gratifying their own needs. Attention-getting initiatives can take two forms: active and passive.

Active Conversational Narcissism

The response a person gives to what someone says can take two forms: the shift-response and the support-response. The support-response keeps attention on the speaker and on the topic he or she has introduced. The shift-response attempts to set the stage for the other person to change the topic and shift the attention to themselves. Let’s look at an example of the difference between the two:

Support-Response

James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob: Oh yeah? What models have you looked at?

Shift-Response

James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob: Oh yeah? I’m thinking about buying a new car too.
James: Really?
Rob: Yup, I just test drove a Mustang yesterday and it was awesome.

In the first example, Rob kept the attention on James with his support-response. In the second example, Rob attempts to turn the conversation to himself with a shift-response.

The shift-response if often very subtle. People put in a nice transition to disguise it by prefacing their response with something like, “That’s interesting,” “Really? “I can see that,” right before they make a comment about themselves. “Oh yeah?” And then they’ll tie their response into the topic at hand, “I’m thinking about buying a new car too.”

Now it’s important to point out that a shift-response just opens up the opportunity for a person to grab the attention, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to. It’s a matter of intent. You might simply be looking to highlight what the other person has said and share a bit of your own experience before bringing the conversation back to the other person. That’s a healthy and natural part of the give and take of conversation. Let’s turn back to Rob and James:

James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob: Oh yeah? I’m thinking about buying a new car too.
James: Really? Maybe we could go look around together.
Rob: Sure. So what models are you looking at?
James: That’s the thing—I’m not sure where to start.
Rob: Well, what are the most important things to you—fuel economy, storage room, horsepower?

So here Rob interjected about himself, but then he turned the conversation back to Rob. Conversational narcissists, on the other hand, keep interjecting themselves until the attention has shifted to them. Like this:

James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob: Oh yeah? I’m thinking about buying a new car too.
James: Really? Maybe we could go look around together.
Rob: Sure. I just test drove the Mustang yesterday and it was awesome.
James: That’s cool. I don’t think I want a sports car though.
Rob: Well, I want something with at least 300 horsepower and definitely leather seating. Did I ever tell you about the time my buddy let me take his Maserati out for a spin? Now that is an automobile.
James: Which one of your friends has a Maserati?

Most conversational narcissists–careful not to appear rude– will mix their support and shift responses together, using just a few more shift-responses, until the topic finally shifts entirely to them.  Conversational narcissists succeed when they elicit a support response from their partner. “Which one of your friends has a Maserati?”

To summarize, it’s fine to share things about yourself, as long as you loop the conversation back to the person who initiated the topic. The best rule to follow is simply not to jump in too early with something about yourself; the earlier you interject, the more likely you are to be making a play to get the attention on yourself. Instead, let the person tell most of their story or problem first, and then share your own experience.

Passive Conversational Narcissism

Conversational narcissism can take an even subtler form. Instead of interjecting about themselves and trying to initiate a new topic, conversational narcissists can simply withhold their support-responses until the other person’s topic withers away and they can take the floor.

To understand how this works, let’s first look at the three forms support-responses can take—each one represents an ascending level of engagement and interest with the topic and speaker:

  • Background acknowledgments: Minimal acknowledgments that you’re listening such as, “Yeah,” “Uh-huh,” “Hmm,” Sure.”
  • Supportive assertions: Acknowledgments that show active listening. “That’s great.” “You should go for it.” “That’s not right.”
  • Supportive questions: Questions show that you’re not only listening, but are interested in hearing more. “Why did you feel that way?” “What was his response when you said that? “What are you going to do now?”

A conversational narcissist can kill someone’s story dead in its tracks by withholding these support-responses, especially by not asking any questions. Etiquette dictates that we don’t ramble on and share every detail of a story right off the bat. We say a bit, and then wait for further questions, so we know that the person we’re speaking with is interested in what we have to say. In the absence of such questions, the speaker will begin to doubt that what they’re saying is interesting. So they’ll stop speaking and turn the attention to the other person. A victory for the conversational narcissist.

Conversationalist narcissists will also show their disinterest in the speaker by delaying their background acknowledgments–those all important “Yeah’s” and “Hmmm’s.” Good conversationalists place their background acknowledgments in just the rights spots, in the small natural pauses in the conversation. The narcissist tries to adhere to social expectations by giving the speaker some cursory acknowledgments, but they’re not really listening, and so they throw them in there just a few seconds off. The speaker easily picks up on this skewed-timing and will stop talking and shift their attention to the narcissist.

Finally, one more form of conversational narcissism to avoid is the “Well, enough about me, I want to hear more about you!” tactic. People will often pull out this kind of line right at the end of an event, so they can make a show of etiquette and interest in the other person, while not actually having to give that person attention that lasts more than a few minutes.

Becoming a Master of the Art of Conversation

Avoiding these pitfalls of conversational narcissism will have you well on your way to becoming a competent and charismatic conversationalist. Once someone introduces a topic, your job is to draw out the narrative from them by giving them encouragement in the form of background acknowledgments and supportive assertions, and moving their narrative along by asking supportive questions. Once their topic has run its course, you can introduce your own topic. But as we mentioned earlier, it takes two to tango. It’s now your partner’s turn to ask you questions. If they don’t, you’ll sadly find yourself, as I did at the lunch with my friend, listening to a never-ending monologue. Just smile and enjoy the chips.

Source: The Pursuit of Attention by Charles Derber


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