We’ve all had it happen. You’re in the middle of a story, perhaps telling an audience of four or five people. Abruptly after you finish (or perhaps you were even cut-off), someone else launches enthusiastically into a personal experience of their own. No one asks questions about yours or even responds, and soon it’s a story-sharing party, like, “Hand me the mic, I’m next!” This normally turns into a lot of talking over one another, voices rising unintentionally. Occasionally, there’s the awkward run-in when two people begin at the same time and have to stutter, “Oh, no, you can go…”
There’s also my personal favorite, the multiple-attempt (or fade-off) sort of approach. You know, when you notice somebody try to join in, but get interrupted countless times, so they just sit back in defeat. Eventually, a bunch of of side conversations erupt, because no one's really listening as a whole anymore; you have to zoom in on one individual that’s actually going to let you finish.
Annoying, right? What about when you were on the other end of it? Even if you are an absolute saint, you are most-likely guilty of Making-It-About-You, too. If you’re now scoffing at your screen and shrugging your shoulders in denial, recall if there was ever a time that you listened to a conversation and knew you could contribute. Instead of genuinely listening, absorbing what is being said, you were planning in your own mind how to present your narrative. Before they can barely finish their last sentence, you’ve already cleared your throat to recite yours.
Hey, it’s OK. Seriously. Everybody does it. But the issue is, it’s so easy to get lost in our own two cents that we get distracted from the people we are engaging with. It may be harmless sitting around in a room full of people comparing childhood stories, everyone speaking over one another, but what about other situations? Say a friend has a rough encounter with their boss at work, and calls you to vent. How easy is it to immediately respond that you once had an employer you clashed with, too, and then provide advice about what you did or didn’t do during that experience? It may feel like you’re helping the person, but you have to keep in mind that they are going through something completely separate from you. Or, someone is upset about an argument with a boyfriend/girlfriend and you want to connect by sharing your own difficulties. To be honest, that person probably doesn’t want to hear about you at that moment. They may not even want your advice.
A more evolved version of this is what I like to call the one-uppers. This is how it goes: you come home from an awful day. I mean really awful, like you need it to rain with some soft Drake playing in the background while you consume an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Somebody, whether it’s a friend, significant other, or family member, asks you what’s wrong. So you tell them. And it feels good to just get it all out, and it feels even better that someone actually cared enough to check in with you. What happens next? The person nods earnestly and then proceeds to trump all your stresses with their own. Maybe you have three papers due next week that you haven’t started, but they’ll have four. Maybe you got a parking ticket, but they’ll jump into the time they got two speeding tickets in a week. Even though everybody needs to release, be careful that you’re not choosing a time that discredits someone else’s. No one wants a competition of who has more on their plate or who is feeling more miserable, yet with people we are closest with, we tend to constantly be comparing and hiding it as “relating.”
When you’re a good friend, there's no doubt that you have an urge to show you can connect. When someone you care about is undergoing something, good or bad, there’s an innate pull to assure them. “I know what you’re going through.” Sometimes, though, we need to realize when it is the right time to let them have their moment. We need to focus. We need to ask questions. We need to empathize without making it about us. Sometimes we need to just listen.