Something happened to me a while back that really made me stop and think.
I was talking to someone about how I was feeling and they immediately jumped into a conversation about how something felt for them, ending my part of the conversation completely.
It dawned on me that people (including me) often do this in conversations without realizing it.
At that moment I understood how harmful this behavior can be to a conversation. It can also be hurtful to the person on the receiving end.
So what is the number one thing we need to stop doing to have better conversations (particularly when someone is opening up to us)?
Stop Making it All About You
I think a lot of us (again myself included) speak up as a way of empathizing with the person we are talking to. We think we’re doing it in a ‘you’re not alone – I feel that way too’ sort of moment.
Don’t get me wrong empathy is a good thing and it certainly adds to relationships and conversations.
The problem is our behavior doesn’t always translate the way we think it does.
While we might think we are being supportive and caring, the person on the receiving end might feel very differently.
To have better conversations we need to stop making conversations all about ourselves.
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Important Note – I am not a trained medical professional or counselor, so if you are struggling with depression, anxiety or suspect you may have a mental illness, please seek help from a trained medical professional.
Here are a few ways we sometimes focus too much on ourselves and a few thoughts on how to have better conversations.
We make it a misery competition
Some people like to make misery a competition.
It might feel and sound something like – my life sucks more than yours and here are all the reasons why your life is great compared to mine.
While we all have our problems, most of us do our best to hang in there, pick ourselves back up and keep moving but when people get stuck in a victim mentality, they tend to move more into misery competition territory.
This doesn’t just happen in our personal relationships, it occurs at work as well, though it can be more subtle. Being busy is a classic example. Busy in many cases has become a badge of honor (though I’m not sure why, because let’s face it, you can be really busy and not get work of any substance done).
People sometimes compete for who is the busiest, who has the most work, who has the worse boss or it might even be a case of who hates their job the most.
If you are struggling with a victim mentality, these posts might help.
How to Break Out of a Victim Mentality – Part 1
How to Break Out of a Victim Mentality – Part 2
How to Break Out of a Victim Mentality – Part 3
When it all comes down to it, we all have our struggles but if we help each other through them, instead of using them as a form of competition, we’ll be a lot better off.
We one-up people
This is the complete opposite of competing for misery.
This one is about competing for who is better.
Let’s set the scene. You tell someone something great happened to you or that you had a fabulous experience and they immediately tell you about something that happened to them, which of course happens to be much more fabulous than what you just said.
They one-up you.
It goes without saying that we can all do this occasionally when something super exciting happens to us and we can’t wait to tell people.
That’s all fine but what you want to look out for is repetition.
One-offs here and there are fine but if someone constantly one-ups you every time you tell them something, it’s going to come across as annoying.
As much as I love traveling, it can be a classic for this sort of behavior. A friend of mine calls it ‘competitive backpacking’. It’s a case of no matter what you have done or seen, there is always that person happy to tell you that they have done more. They’ve climbed a higher mountain or done something more exciting.
I saw a great example of this when I was living in London many years ago. My partner at the time had been traveling for several months through India and was starting to pick up the ‘competitive backpacking’ vibe.
Then we meet another backpacker for the first time. No matter what anyone had done, he had done better – every time. Everyone in the room picked up on it. My partner looked at me and asked – ‘Do I sound like that?” My response – “Little Bit”. He never did it again because he suddenly understood how annoying it was.
By all means, share in your success and experiences. Use them to inspire people and lift them up. You should be happy and excited about all of the great things you have done and achieved just be conscious of making sure that you are not putting someone else down in the process.
(Let’s face it sometimes we have to deal with toxic people in our lives. An excellent book that can help is Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World by Dr. Phil McGraw. I wish I had discovered this book earlier, it would have helped me through an extremely difficult work situation where I was dealing with a toxic, abusive boss. When I got my hands on this book I couldn’t put it down.)
We minimize people’s feelings or pain
When someone opens up to you about their feelings, particularly when they are feeling extremely vulnerable, the last thing you want to do is minimize their feelings or their pain.
When you minimize someone’s feelings, it’s like you are telling them feeling the way they do is wrong.
This one can be subtle or it can be extremely blunt and obvious. Either way, the message is clear, it’s not okay to feel the way you do.
We often minimize people’s pain by telling them something similar happened to someone else or by stating that something far worse happened to someone else (which sounds like we should be grateful that our problem isn’t as bad).
This doesn’t help people feel better. In fact, it can make them feel worse.
When people are sad or grieving, they need someone to listen to them, not tell them stories of more suffering.
Related content –
- 12 Best Books on Having Better Conversations
- How to Communicate with Someone When They Are Feeling Vulnerable
- How to Have a Two-Way Conversation
- It’s Not All About You
- 7 Signs You Are Taking on Other People’s Problems
We say our story is the same as their story
As mentioned, while being empathetic is a good thing, it’s not a good idea to assume that just because your stories as similar or have a similar component, that you know how the other person feels.
While finding common ground to discuss is good, it’s not good to assume that you know exactly how someone feels in a particular situation.
For example, if your company has been shut down and all the employees are made redundant over a scheduled lay off program; that’s different from someone being called into an office unexpectedly and fired with no notice and for no reason.
While you might both be out in the workforce looking for a job (something you can both relate to and talk about) how you got there and the feelings involved in each situation will be different.
Each person may feel a different sense of loss and disappointment. It’s important to understand that similar is not the same.
(If you have gone through the firing scenario, you can read about the mixed bag of emotions you might be feeling here)
We don’t allow someone to get their thoughts out
When people are opening up about something and we cut them off and tell a story about ourselves it often means the person never gets to finish what they were talking about.
It means they didn’t get a chance to express themselves fully.
While I appreciate that we often cut in as a way of bonding and connecting with people, sometimes it can be quite isolating to the other person if we haven’t enabled them to finish their train of thought or get their frustrations out.
Sometimes we need to sit back and let people talk.
Yes, even when what they are saying sounds like a lot of waffle. Sometimes we need to ramble on a bit to get to the logic of a situation.
Sometimes we just need to get our thoughts out, so we can stop thinking about them and move forward.
A lot of us process our emotions and feelings by talking (even an introvert like myself who happily spends a lot of time in their head, needs a one on one chat with a close friend every now and then to get stuff out).
Try to avoid cutting people off when they are talking. By all means, you can express empathy at the end of the conversation but try not to jump in and take over the conversation when someone is still pouring their heart out.
When you cut people off they might feel like they are not being heard and in some cases that you don’t care about how they feel.
Related post – 20 Ways to Show Genuine Interest in People’s Lives
We forget who we are talking to
Sometimes we need to think about who we are talking to about certain situations.
I know this one can be hard because we don’t always know exactly what is going on in our friends’ lives all of the time but still it’s something to take into consideration.
I’ll give you an extreme example of this one. Years ago when my Dad was dying from lung cancer, one of my dear friends in her early thirties was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a terrible shock to everyone. She was in Sydney at the time and I was in Brisbane so most of our conversations were by telephone.
I remember talking to my friend about what Dad had been through and how difficult I was finding it when I remembered that she was going through chemo herself. For her cancer wasn’t something horrible that was happening to someone else, it was something very real and terrible that was happening to her.
Being the incredible person she is, we discussed this openly and she had no issue with me talking about how I was struggling with everything that was happening.
It helps sometimes to remember who you are talking to and try to take what is happening in their lives into account.
We don’t listen
I think this Stephen R. Covey quote is spot on.
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey
If we are being honest, many of us aren’t really listening – we’re half listening but more focused on what we are going to say next. That’s the ‘intent to reply’ situation above.
Truly listening to the people in our lives can lead to better conversations and in turn stronger relationships.
I don’t mean to be judgmental with this article (hell I’ve done most of these myself and some very recently!) but I think we can all work on improving our conversations which in turn will improve our relationships with the people in our lives.
Awareness is the key. Once you are aware of a particular behavior you can work on improving it or eliminating it from your conversations. Are you ready to have better conversations?
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