How to keep people from monopolizing a conversation
Who would have thought a petite, sweet-faced, seventy-year-old could ruin a class? She seemed reserved as she took a seat in the corner. I wondered briefly if she would be able to get a word in edgewise.
I didn't need to worry! The woman was a volcano of words ready to erupt.
From the time we began our introductions until the time we trickled out at the end of class, weary and shell-shocked, she spewed a lava of nonstop talk that smothered any hope of further discussion.
At the time, I didn’t know how to stop her. A few others tried to interrupt, but she forged ahead, oblivious. She wouldn’t be sidetracked or deterred from monopolizing the discussion.
Gradually, people stopped coming until our numbers dwindled to three: me, the talker, and one other committed (or masochistic) person.
When a Talker Ruins a Class
Fast forward a few years, and I was enrolled in a class taught by a friend. She did her homework, knew her material, and was a great presenter. This had all the makings of a good class; a lively group of participants, a well-prepared teacher, and interesting material.
Except for the talker! This time it was a man. He knew everything, and I do mean everything. He was a walking Wikipedia, self-proclaimed expert in all subjects and more than ready to share his knowledge.
I ached for my friend, who was trying to be polite. She didn’t want to cut him off and sound rude.
Our talker might have been the death of the class if it weren’t for his accident. He was in a car crash and spent the rest of the semester recuperating, which I was sorry about. You don’t wish accidents on anyone. But the class ended up being great.
The person who hijacks meetings
A few years after my unsuccessful teaching experience, I was hired for a job that included training extroverted sales people. Imagine trying to grab and hold the attention of 15 or 16 talkative, gregarous folks.
Most of them kept the training sessions lively with their energy and enthusiasm. But there was always somebody who went beyond gregarious. Way beyond!
Like the sweet-faced little lady in my previous class, this person would not shut up!
An entire training session can be hijacked by people like this, but fortunately I had learned a little more about group management by this time.
The trick was to allow time for discussion and feedback without letting one or two people monopolize the session.
Ways to Handle Talkers and Still Promote Discussion
One of my favorite ways to thwart talkers and promote discussion was to pass out index cards. I instructed participants to jot down any thoughts, questions or feedback as I was presenting.
When they finished their notes, they were to park them in a miniature parking lot constructed in the middle of the table.
At the end of a training session, we unloaded the parking lot and discussed what they had written, with a limited amount of time for each speaker.
There’s a fine balance between presenting material and allowing group participation. Dividing teams into smaller groups for short team-building exercises or mini-presentations is a good way to control the talkers. They don’t have as much opportunity to seize the floor when they’re sidelined in a smaller group.
If they insist on interrupting during a presentation, you might need to be more direct and say something like, “That’s a good thought but we need to move on,” or “We don’t have time to discuss that now, but if you’ll see me during the break I’d like to explore it more with you.”
The Social Talker
So far I’ve focused on people who interrupt classes or hijack meetings. But there are also the social talkers; people who seem to have a never-ending ocean of words. As soon as they see you the dam bursts, spilling words until you feel like you’re drowning.
I need to clarify here that I’m not talking about somebody who has the gift of gab, defined as “the ability to speak with eloquence and fluency.”
People with the gift of gab are an asset at social gatherings and a pleasure to listen to. They speak confidently and what they say is interesting.
They entertain you with their stories, they support you with their encouragement, and most importantly of all, they use part of the conversational exchange to listen to you. They’re interested in hearing what you think and what you’re doing!
People who won’t stop talking, on the other hand, are not interested in your life. You’re a sounding board while they drone on, expecting you to follow them down every conversational rabbit hole.
A friend of mine is in a gourmet dinner club, and one member of her group is a nonstop talker. “It’s fascinating,” my friend said. “She can eat and talk at the same time, nonstop, finishing her food before anyone else but managing to monopolize the conversation. No one else gets a word in.”
Why do Some People Talk so Much?
People talk too much for different reasons. Some people think they’re more interesting than anybody else. They don’t care what anybody else has to say.
I’ve heard this referred to as “conversational narcissism,” or the constant need to return the conversation to oneself.
Other people are insecure and afraid of silence. They believe they need to fill every pause with more words, because they are panicked by a conversational lull.
Some people don’t have anyone else to talk to, and they’re thrilled that someone, at long last, is listening.
Figuring out which type of person has you cornered can be helpful. The conversational narcissist will not be deterred, even if you avoid eye contact or give off nonverbal cues that you’re ready to cut the conversation short. An abrupt approach is sometimes the only thing that works with the conversational narcissist.
Deciding When to be Abrupt and When to be Patient
The abrupt approach might be crucial at work. If you have a gazillion projects to finish and a talker enters the office with every intention of consuming the remainder of the day, your only recourse could be to say, “I’ve got to finish this project now, but let’s set up a time in the future to talk about this.”
You could even joke around a bit and say something like, “I know what you’re trying to do. You want to keep me from working so you’ll get the next promotion. It won’t work! You have to leave so I can finish this, but we’ll go out for a drink later.”
When I’m approached by someone who seems insecure or needs to vent, I try to be more patient.
The other day, a woman with a lot going on in her life talked at length about her sick husband, her estranged daughter, and her own poor health.
I listened sympathetically for a while, because she obviously needed a sounding board.
Sometimes setting up a lunch date or coffee break with somebody who needs this kind of attention is helpful. If they continue to dominate your time with their problems, you could suggest they meet with a church Stephen Minister, a counselor, or someone else who will lend a listening ear.
Handling a Talker at Social Gatherings
At a social gathering, extricating yourself from a nonstop talker is a little easier. You can say, “Hey, let’s head over to the refreshments,” then casually drift away.
Or you can wait until a third person joins the conversation, then you bow out, leaving the two of them together.
But keep in mind that it’s not all bad to be cornered by a talker. Some introverts prefer it when the conversational burden isn’t on them.
One friend told me, “I like it that he talks so much because all I have to do is throw out a question now and then and he’s off and running."
If you're bothered by people who talk too much, it might help to keep in mind that we learn more from listening than we do from talking.