06/25/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Three Ways to Stop a Conversation Monopolizer


Dear Debra:

I recently spent an enjoyable evening with an acquaintance of mine. In reality, we had a nice time, but a few days later, I realized she never once asked about me, my work, my family - nothing! I have read your books and I am patting myself on the back for being a good listener - but I am feeling a little put-off now looking back on the night of what I can only call "All About You." Where did I go wrong? I want to be a good listener (and a good friend), but I also feel like there should be some give and take. Any advice?

Sincerely, What About Me?

Dear Me:

Dear me! I hear you -- pun intended.

First, I, too, am patting you on the back for being a good listener. Even without meeting your conversation cohort, I would bet my retirement fund that she left feeling absolutely great. Why? Because most people love to talk about themselves. So spending an evening with you, talking about her, likely felt like a perfect night.

I don't typically receive emails like yours, so my ears perked up -- again, pun intended. Most of my readers and audience members ask me how to start a conversation and keep it going. So, if you are looking for the silver lining here, celebrate the fact that you didn't have to carry the conversation. Your friend, while a bit narcissistic, did the bulk of the work for you. Sometimes it's nice to sit back and just listen.

But if you are hoping for a true exchange of thoughts and ideas, use these three simple steps next time:

Be General:
If you have had enough of listening to someone else's stories about their children, their renovation, their vacation and their stock market success, try to steer the conversation into a more general direction, like current events or -- oh I don't know -- euthanasia.

Kidding. (Sort of.) But by redirecting the conversation towards a topic that lends itself to a back-and-forth exchange: Did you read the article about how women over forty are smarter than any other creature on the planet? will allow for a more equitable exchange.

Be Specific:
If being general doesn't float your boat, mention something that you are doing: It's so good to hear about what's happening with you! I promised myself to tell you about our recent good news. Charlie was accepted to Stanford and now I am both celebrating his success and mourning his departure!

Now you have changed the dynamic because:
• There is a new topic on the table
• It's a topic you can (probably) both relate to
• You've done your job as a good listener by allowing your friend her time and space to share her news and you've done your job as a small talker by offering a peek into your own life

Be Ready to Make a Move:
Sometimes the only way to stop a monopolizer is to get out of the conversation. When you realize you have no hope of having a lively exchange of ideas, give your friend a warning sign like Gosh, hearing about your food poisoning has been amazing. I've got an early meeting tomorrow morning, so I've only got about fifteen minutes left to hear about the details of the Chicken Cacciatore.

Now you've let your friend know that this LOVELY conversation needs to be wrapped up in a timely fashion, but you haven't been abrupt in your departure. As the clock ticks, smile, nod and find a break in the conversation.

Being a good small talker is an art; and being a good listener is a gift. Being good at both is pure conversational gold.