I stumbled upon a great blog entry that touched upon one of my greatest frustrations in life when it comes to interpersonal communication. The blog entry was titled “Grief: Why Comparing Losses Never Helps and Often Hurts.” Here is a link to the article: Grief Support Blog.
“So how does this relate to my greatest pet peeve?”
Let me unpack that for you.
Somewhere along the way, some of us learned that in order to establish a bond with another person it is helpful to share an experience of ours that relates to the topic the other person is talking about. For instance, if someone says, “I saw the best movie last night starring Jennifer Lopez” – the other person might blurt out, “Oh, I love Jennifer Lopez! My favorite movie of hers is ….” And off Person B goes!
On the surface, it might seem as if the two people are bonding: sharing similar experiences. But let’s dig deeper into the dynamic of the conversation.
The first person (let’s call the individual “Person A”) started the conversation hoping to talk about the new movie (Movie A) that just so happened to star Jennifer Lopez. Instead of talking about Movie A, however, the second person (let’s call the person “Person B”) high jacks the conversation and shifts the conversation away from the original topic (from Movie A to Jennifer Lopez).
The irony is that while Person B might have been well intended – hoping to build or strengthen a bridge between the two – it typically has the OPPOSITE effect. Their approach can make Person A feel completely unheard, or invisible. It also creates the impression that Person B is narcissistic.
The example I used is a fairly innocuous one. The effect grows exponentially when the topic is deeper (i.e. Person A says something like “My father just passed away” or “My spouse just filed for divorce”). Attempts to switch the focus is even more hurtful in such cases!
Why do people do it?
For a variety of reasons. Sometimes, Person B genuinely feels that it is an attempt to strengthen the relationship. Sometimes, Person B is feeling insecure and their attempt to shift the focus back on to themselves is a way they deal with nerves. Other times, Person B has no clue what to say – so they use their words as a way of filling space. There are many other reasons as well.
So how can you break that dangerous pattern of redirecting things back to oneself in the conversation?
There are a couple things I’ve learned over the past two decades in my practice of ministry. First, become aware of your communication pattern. Start observing yourself and seeing if you regularly turn things back to yourself. Second, let go of your need to be the expert on a topic. Instead of trying to provide information for the other person, simply make a commitment to actively listen to your loved ones. Which takes me to my third and final point. Know that the most important way you can be present in people’s lives is by having what we pastors call “a ministry of presence”. My experience in congregations these past two decades has shown me that most people aren’t seeking advice or recommendations. Google and Yelp are increasingly taking care of those needs. What they REALLY need is someone to listen and show that they care through their presence (be that in person, over the phone, or via the Internet).
These are just a couple of thoughts I had about avoiding the temptation to redirect conversations and make things about you. How about you? What things do you use to help keep you able to be there for your loved ones?