When you discuss controversial or troubling issues with others, on whom do you primarily focus – on their concerns and their stories or on yours?
Recently, I had a long conversation with an individual experiencing a potentially life-altering event in his business affairs. After running a successful enterprise for over 35 years, he wanted to just walk away and do something that would be “more fun.” His reticence had more to do with his work ethic than his desire for rejuvenating change.
Closing his business down, which he could easily afford to do, would of course be catastrophic for his employees as well as for the community. We spent over forty minutes on the phone and I barely said a word, other than occasionally asking him to expand on his thoughts.
At the end of our call, he shocked me. He said, “Thank you for your advice. You’ve really helped me work some things out.” Despite my inveterate temptation to give my counsel, he didn’t really need it. He just wanted to be heard and supported.
Charles Derber coined the term “conversational narcissism” to describe the desire to take control of a conversation, either deliberately or unconsciously, and turn the focus of the exchange on oneself. We are all guilty of this behaviour from time to time. It isn’t necessarily a boorish play for attention, it can simply be “an itch” we feel when waiting for someone to stop talking. Regardless, it’s an empathy killer.
When we project empathy, people see us as being approachable, caring and warm – as someone they like and feel comfortable being around. Empathy fulfills a basic human need: to be acknowledged and understood.
Empathy is essential for balancing one’s power with personal magnetism. A person who has power without empathy comes off as cold, arrogant and aloof. A person with warmth but no power is perceived as weak and desperate for approval. Of all the ingredients of charisma, empathy is the hardest to fake.
Shifting attention to our own experiences is natural. We’re hardwired to talk about ourselves more than any other subject. The insula (inside our cerebral cortex, the brain’s executive command centre) takes in information then looks for relevant experiences in our memory banks that provide needed context. The brain is just trying to make sense of what it hears.
That’s where the trouble begins. Instead of helping us understand another’s experience, our own recollections of similar circumstances distort our perception of what he or she is feeling. And the more comfortable we are with our own experiences, the more difficult it is to empathize with the feelings or views of another.
Derber described two kinds of reactions we give when speaking with others: a shift response or a support response. The first shifts attention back on ourselves; the second supports the other’s comments. Conversational narcissists show their disinterest by either not giving or delaying verbal acknowledgments, like an all-important grunt or “hmmm” or “uh-huh.”
If Jennifer were to say to Chris “You know, I’m just so busy right now, “ he might respond in one of two ways: either “Me, too. I’m totally overwhelmed” or by asking “Why … what do you have to get done?”. The latter is supportive, while the former is a shift (to me) response. The latter encourages Jennifer to continue to describe her concerns because she knows Chris is interested in hearing more.
Communication is like a game of catch, in which we’re forced to take turns. Often in difficult or prickly conversations, we fail or resist giving the other an opportunity to respond. Some craftily disguise their attempt at reciprocity. They start a sentence with a supportive comment but quickly follow it up with one about themselves.
To overcome the inbred instinct to talk about ourselves, we need to learn to ask supportive questions that encourage the other to continue talking. I repeatedly tell executives whom I coach to speak less but say more. What I really mean is “listen more.” As counter-intuitive as it might seem, listening more means you end up saying far more relevant, interesting or provocative things when you do speak.
It’s okay to share things about yourself as long as you loop the conversation back to the person who initiated the topic. The basic principle of empathy is not to jump in too early with something about yourself; the earlier you do, the more you’re focussing attention on yourself.
As always, the antidote is self-awareness. Be mindful of the difference between shift and support in conversations with others, especially when the other is experiencing discomfort, loss or pain. Just by saying less than you might normally do, you enable them to expand on their concerns, fears, challenges or dilemmas. It’s not about us all the time; sometimes it has to be about them.