I think a lot about how people interact with and support each other, especially around the harder things in life. Many of us did not learn the skills necessary to do this well from our families of origin growing up, and they are definitely skills. Luckily, there are some resources out there to help us find our way, and to become better friends to those we care about. This is part 2 of a series exploring some helpful tools.
Celeste Headlee is the author of “We Need to Talk: How to have conversations that matter.” The book is eye-opening, and I appreciated the ways she talks about cultivating curiosity and better ways of listening.
Oprah.com published an excerpt from that book as an essay, “Celeste Headlee: The Mistake I Made with My Grieving Friend.”
One thing that really struck me is how often we have each experienced this kind of exchange. One person is having a hard time, and in response, the other person tells their story – often under the pretense of showing they can relate. But relating may not be what’s going on.
When she began to share her raw emotions, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, so I defaulted to a subject with which I was comfortable: myself.
I may have been trying to empathize, at least on a conscious level, but what I really did was draw focus away from her anguish and turn the attention to me. She wanted to talk to me about her father, to tell me about the kind of man he was, so I could fully appreciate the magnitude of her loss. Instead, I asked her to stop for a moment and listen to my story about my dad’s tragic death.
Have you done this? I know I have. And once I read this I started paying attention. Because realistically, none of us want to be on the receiving end of it. At best, we don’t feel heard. At worst, we feel shut down. Celeste shares a term with us: conversational narcissism.
Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as “conversational narcissism.” 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. It is often subtle and unconscious. Derber writes that conversational narcissism “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America.
I realized that this was a dynamic I was raised with. In fact, I learned that the only way I could be “heard” (or at least get airtime) was to compete for space in a conversation. And that it was never satisfying and I never felt heard or supported.
There’s a better way, which is to move from a “shift response” to a “support response.” Take a gander at Celeste’s piece, or for a deeper dive, her book.