Why Certain People Can't Stop Talking
... and 7 strategies for more satisfying conversations.
Posted June 30, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Over-talking at social gatherings is often due to situational influences, not inherent traits.
- Rearranging participants, focusing on themes rather than personal anecdotes, and maintaining equal status encourage conversational balance.
- Inappropriate reinforcement can inadvertently encourage over-talking, while appropriate reinforcement can bring about equitable participation.
We’ve all been at social gatherings where someone commands the conversation time. We can manage this intermittently, but if that person consistently dominates, the gatherings can become unpleasant. Occasions that would otherwise be supportive and fun turn into something to be avoided.
Reasons for over-talking can be primarily intrinsic. Some people are naturally talkative, devotedly self-absorbed, or oblivious to the imbalance between talking and listening. But other reasons are primarily situational and can be identified and managed. After listening for a while, we can diagnose the situational reasons for over-talking and try to create more balance.
Here are seven strategies for moving toward a more satisfying and interactive flow of conversation.
Restructuring the Social Environment
The structure of a group can strongly influence participation. Groups of more than six people often don’t allow some people to contribute—at least not for very long. Breaking a larger group into several smaller conversations of two, three, and four works better for equitable engagement. We can reposition ourselves and start our own conversation with a smaller subset of people, preferably facing people rather than sitting side by side. There’s no obligation to stay in a large group.
If the group does remain large, it’s crucial not to have a leader. Social gatherings are not meetings or classes. We can courteously leave the larger group and take a break if necessary.
In conversation, most of us have theme detectors. We identify themes and respond to them—sometimes with an associated event or a personal story that addresses the theme.
The theme might be travel, which certainly involves narrating our own experiences, but these narrations can be brief and responsive to the group's interests. If someone says, “I just got back from London,” one natural response is to ask questions about the trip. Over-talkers, however, might seize the opportunity to describe their own trips to London—at length. Instead of theme detectors, they have Me detectors. In this situation, it’s best to wait for a pause and get back to the person who first made the announcement about London.
In conversation, we follow the given-new contract, taking an idea that was just stated and providing new information on top of it. Over-talkers often use the briefest of given information as a springboard for an abundance of self-oriented new information.
Shifting One's Status
One possible reason for verbal excess is that people perceive themselves as having higher status than others in the group—due to more expertise or more uniquely distinctive experiences in general. Of course, when people talk about themselves, they actually are experts. For that reason, over-talkers keep the focus on their activities, thereby maintaining their expertise. This dynamic with self-perceived status can be disrupted by appropriately shifting subjects or emphasizing our lives' eventfulness.
The primary problem may not be the amount of time spent talking. It could be saying too much about one thing. Linguists distinguish between deep structure (the ideas to be expressed) and surface structure (the actual words expressing those ideas). If someone’s surface structure is abundant while their deep structure is minimal, the unnecessary repetition makes people sound more longwinded than they actually are.
While conversing, we normally oscillate between too much information and not enough, trying to find the sweet spot of just enough. Too much information and listeners become bored. Not enough, and they’re confused. Consistently wordy people are not attending to the expectations of their audience, and they supply too much.
We can enliven the interaction by politely affirming what we already know and then adding to the conversation from our own experience.
Sometimes we allow or even encourage people to monopolize conversations by reinforcing their talkativeness. Nodding in agreement or even shaking our heads in disagreement can encourage the speaker. Impatient sighs, looking at our phone, and glancing away may actually invite more talking. The same goes with interrupting, which can ratchet up the tension and create a conversational competition. Paradoxically, we should temporarily reduce our output, assuming a neutral expression and saying nothing.
This is straightforward reinforcement theory, breaking the connection between a behavior and the particular social situation, in this case avoiding the reinforcement of lengthy expressions.
On the flip side, we should also pay attention to desirable behavior, providing reinforcement when the talkative person is judicious and concise.
Relationships Essential Reads
If we’re up to it, directness can work. We tell the person about our difficulty with over-talking by focusing on how it affects us, placing boundaries on the other person’s excessive output rather than criticizing it. We might ask, “Can we have equal time?”
When we are direct with talkative people, we should show we heard what they said, but then follow the given-new contract, and add something of our own, modeling conversational rhythm. They may interrupt, but then we can be diplomatically assertive and say we would like to finish what we were saying.
Sometimes, I need to remind myself that being direct is not the same as being blunt. When someone verbally dominates a group interaction, the social scientist in me is tempted to use my stopwatch app to time the talkative person and then make an announcement. “In the last hour, you’ve spoken 42 minutes, while the rest of us divided 18 minutes between us. In fact, Eva and Jon didn’t speak at all.” But I don’t do that. I’m not a social scientist at a gathering—just as the verbally dominating person is not a guest lecturer.
Welcoming Necessary Expression
Reasons for talkativeness can be practical and reasonable. People who spend their days in front of a screen or with young children will crave adult listeners.
In this case, it’s helpful to let the person decompress and adjust to the adult social environment. After listening for a while, we may want to comment sympathetically about the stresses of their day and then gracefully introduce new topics.
Final (Brief) Words
Talking too much is fundamentally an imbalance between talking and listening. We don’t want to shut down the talkative person. We want to restore the balance. Ultimately, if the person is not reading our frustration or doesn’t acknowledge it, we should ask ourselves if the interaction is worth the continuing frustration.
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