The Art of Conversation: How to Avoid Conversational Narcissism

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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.

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