We’ve all been there. You’re having a conversation with someone and you feel like every time you share something, they come up with their own similar – or not so similar – story or reason why what you said resonates with their experience. Or maybe you’re the one who can’t help but jump into conversations with your own relevant anecdotes.
“This is incredibly common, and it’s something called autobiographical listening,” Amelia Reigstad, a Minnesota-based communications consultant and coach, told HuffPost. “Autobiographical listening is when we listen with the intention of responding rather than actively listening to the person we are interacting with. When we do this, we tend to think about our own experiences and filter what others are saying through our own stories.”
While this approach to discussion may be appropriate at times, there are times when you’ll want to be aware and avoid the urge.
“When someone really needs to be understood, jumping in and sharing our own relatable stories gets in the way,” Reigstad said. “I think it’s more about awareness than balance. It’s okay to share your stories and relate to the person you’re talking to when you need to, but also know when they really need to just listen to you.”
Another term that can describe this tendency to direct conversations back to yourself or engage with your own experience is conversational narcissism.
“I think when people rush to chalk everything up to a personal experience, it can come across as thoughtless and, at worst, selfish,” said Meg Gitlin, a New York-based psychotherapist. “By responding with something that has happened to them personally, the person could be trying to do a number of things – one of which is to connect through shared experiences. If used carefully, this can be a wonderful way to make a person feel less alone. However, some people just like to listen to themselves talk and have a bad habit of doing everything for them.”
Even when we have good or benign intentions, constantly sharing how something relates to our own experiences can still be frustrating. By doing this, we go beyond making someone feel validated and not giving them the space to express themselves.
“I think we often forget that there is tremendous value in simply listening and holding space for someone when they want to share,” Gitlin said. “I think most of us are pretty self-absorbed and feel the need to connect based on shared experiences. However, if we inhibit this impulse, we will likely find a shift towards more meaningful and genuine interactions.”
Below, Gitlin and other experts share their tips for resisting the urge to talk about ourselves.
Practice “empathic listening.”
“It’s important to be aware in our conversations and practice empathic listening – listening to understand, not to respond,” Reigstad said. “I’m sure we’ve all been in conversations where words sit on the tip of our tongue waiting to be spat out, but when we do, we’re not actively listening. Being a good listener takes work, and the more we understand and recognize that, the better we become.”
Working on your ability to listen can help communicate effectively in both personal and professional relationships, so these are skills worth improving.
“When we fail to hear from the other person’s perspective, we hear through our own lens and tend to make more judgments compared to just listening,” Reigstad added. “There are four types of autobiographical listening: evaluation, examination, advice, and interpretation. These responses tend to prompt us to ask questions based on our experiences, offer advice on how to solve the problem, and so on. It’s important to resist the urge and allow the other person to speak.”
Verify what you hear.
“Show you’re listening by paraphrasing and giving the person what they’re saying,” advised Racine Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York. “If you hear a story or an experience, say, ‘What I’m hearing you say is XYZ’ or ‘What I think you’re trying to express is XYZ – is that accurate? Did that happen for you?’ Then let the person confirm or deny.”
This listening exercise keeps you engaged in what the other person is saying and deepens the conversation.
“If they confirm that, then they can feel that you’ve listened to them and made them feel understood,” Henry said. “And if they deny it, you can ask them to say it again so you can understand, empathize and be present with them in the moment. That verification, that check-in slows down communication and takes the focus off of you.”
Remember times when you were on the other side.
“I think it’s valuable to think about how you’ve felt in the past when you went to a friend to share something and they hijacked the conversation,” Gitlin said. “It probably didn’t feel great and left you feeling less understood and less visible than if you hadn’t shared it in the first place. Sometimes reversing roles is a great way to see what it feels like to be on the other end of that exchange.”
As the saying goes, try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Just as you want to feel understood and validated, the person talking to you probably does too. Trust that it will be your turn to share your own experiences later in the conversation or at another time, and give them your full attention and space to express themselves in the present.
Additionally, ask yourself what will happen to the conversation if you act on your urge to relate it back to yourself.
“I would encourage people to think about what sharing their own experience will bring to the table other than changing the subject,” Gitlin said. “If you think it skews the balance of the conversation away from the keynote speaker, consider shelving it for now.”
Ask what they want from the conversation.
“When you go into a conversation, I think there’s value in trying to understand what the person is looking for,” Gitlin said. “Are they looking for advice or a safe place to vent? You can even ask how you can be more helpful so it’s not a guessing game.”
A simple question towards the beginning of the conversation can put you on the right track to a meaningful connection.
“Once we have fully listened and engaged with what the other person has to say, then we can ask, ‘Do you have the time and energy to hear my story?’ said Henry. “We can also ask when would be a good time to talk about ourselves and what we’ve been through, noting that now might not be the best time if they’re in an emotional space.”
He noted that people may feel hesitant to ask these questions because it feels like work, and we tend to expect all of our interactions to be organic.
“But sometimes we need encouragement or the blatant communication of ‘what do I need from you right now as a friend,'” Henry said. “It can be uncomfortable to be more intentional in relationships, but that’s what it really takes. We have to be more intentional in our lives on the other hand.”
Consider whether you ‘match’ or ‘cover’.
“I often call this impulse to ‘match’ with other people, and it’s not a good thing to start doing right away,” said Denver-based communication expert and author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk” Debra Fine. “Say you ask your friend, ‘What’s new in your life since I last saw you?’ He says, “I recently went on a weekend golf vacation.” You fit in if you immediately say, “Oh, we went on a golf vacation a few years ago.”
She also advised not to “catch up” – something that goes beyond matching, sharing how your experience was bigger or better. In the above example, he would say, “Oh, we went on a golf holiday in Scotland and stayed for a week.”
“Finding a common denominator is good,” Finn said. “We want to connect in chat for professional, social, romantic reasons, but connecting requires matching later. Instead, say, “Oh, you went on a golf vacation—tell me about it! Have you done this before?’ Show interest in their vacation, their child, their work project. Then reveal what you have in common.”
In the same vein, you’ll want to avoid giving off a “been there, done that” impression in your responses to other people’s experiences.
“If you’re describing your decision to change careers and I say, ‘Oh, I’ve been there, done that,’ that’s going to cut you off and say your experience isn’t unique,” Fine said. “It’s a match and the end of the conversation in an arrogant way. If you say, “I got laid off and it was hard,” then don’t cover it by saying something like, “Oh, you think it’s hard, I lived through the dot-com bust.”
Give yourself time limits.
“It’s not just loud people taking over conversations,” Fine said. “Some people are nervous. They can be shy introverts who find themselves in a situation where people show interest, so they keep talking about themselves and lose track of time.”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with sharing your own experiences and thoughts, but try to strike a balance to avoid doing so at all times in all conversations. Fine has a rule that you should try not to talk about your work, vacations, interests, or anything else you’re zeroing in on for more than five minutes.
“Nobody thinks he’s a monopolist, but then he’s constantly babbling about the New York Giants,” he said. “So give yourself a five-minute limit or ideally even a three-minute limit before returning to the other person’s interests. “Take the weight of other people’s comfort in conversations” is my mantra.
Focus on what you don’t know and ask questions.
“One point that is critical is that we know our own stories,” Fine said. “I know about my vacation and what it was like, but I don’t know about this trip for you with your vacation — or your work project or your child. That’s what I’m here to learn.”
He recommended going into interactions prepared with a few topics to ask that show interest — whether it’s family or sports. Even in Zoom meetings, he asks questions like “Where are you today?” or “What kind of plans do you have for the upcoming season?”
“Yeah, it’s good to go back and forth like a volleyball and not a cage,” Fine said. “But take a breath, listen, be genuinely interested, be present and see what that person is saying. Log in and learn what there is to learn.”