Some days it seems that everyone wants to share their stories and opinions. In the morning, we’re assailed by a friend sharing her outrage over what she read on Facebook last night. A co-worker takes every opportunity to share the unfolding drama of his divorce. Someone behind us at the store loudly shares their opinion on who’s to blame for this or that problem, trying to engage us in an argument about it.
Listening all day can be draining, it can be a major time-taker in our already busy lives, and it can leave us feeling trapped. Overly talkative people can turn a quick trip to the grocery store into a head-down race to get our items before getting waylaid. Even positive stories about a friend’s daughter’s wedding can feel overwhelming when relayed in too much detail, at the wrong time.
Getting along doesn’t mean we have to listen to everyone as long as they want to talk. Conversation can create connection, but only when it’s balanced. When we’re hearing more than we can take in, we can feel irritable. Once we’re triggered, we can start passing along the frustration – irritation is contagious.
So, where do we draw the line? For the most part, each of us gets to decide for ourselves. That’s right, we each get to decide how much conversation we participate in and the topics discussed. (If it’s the boss whose talkativeness is a problem, that’s a different story for a different column.)
When we’ve decided that we’ve had enough, how do we stop conversations? It depends on the nature of the relationship. If the talker is an acquaintance, a simple, “Thanks for the update, but I’m afraid I have to run.”, followed by leaving, will do it. Of course, we need to make sure we’re not misleading others in how much we want to hear, too. If we don’t want to hear how a person is doing, it’s best not to ask them.
If the talker is a good friend or family member, the ongoing relationship requires a bit more openness. It’s okay to interrupt the person talking and let them know we can’t take in any more at the moment or can’t listen as well as we’d like. Let them know that we’d love to hear their comments at another time (but only say it if that’s true). Then, later, when we have a chance to really listen, ask them about what they wanted to tell us.
Each of us has different levels of comfort with talking and listening. We may be more open to listening on some days than others, too.
Overwhelm from too much input can come from virtual contact, too. Give yourself permission to unplug from Facebook, or the internet, or Twitter. Those endless streams of news and views are specifically designed to draw us in, so conscious limits are often necessary.
To be fair, each of us also needs to look honestly at whether and when we’re corralling others to listen to our long or often-repeated stories. It’s important to feel heard, but we don’t always get to choose who hears us, or when. If there’s no willing listener at the moment, we can write what we want to say. Writing a long email, or even a letter, can balance our need to be heard with the listener’s desire to have control over when they give us their attention.
We each have the freedom to limit the subject, when, and with whom conversations happen. Tell your friend that you can’t talk politics with her today. Sympathize with your coworker’s difficulties, and then politely, but firmly, end the conversation with him. Ignore the invitation to argument from the overly loud shopper. Give yourself some quiet space in the midst of the day.