Beware the Joy of Talking

Several years ago, a young professor named James Pennebaker at the University of Virginia conducted a series of experiments with his new classes. He would divide them up into groups for just 15 minutes, and ask them to talk about anything they liked. These groups were comprised of students who didn’t know one another, so as you might imagine they talked about their home towns, how they got to the university, what they were studying, and so on. After the group broke up he would ask them to estimate how much talking each person did in the group, how much they enjoyed their group, and how much they learned from others in the group.

Consistently, those who did most of the talking claimed to have learned the most, and liked their peers the most. It seemed the more they talked, the happier they were about the people around them. In fact, as he repeated the experiment he discovered that the larger the group, the greater the effect and the more the biggest talker liked the group. And the effect diminished as the group got smaller, to the point that in a one-to-one conversation, if someone dominated the conversation they both reported disliking it.

Which leads us to an idea Charles Derber coined as “conversational narcissism.” It’s the kind of conversational trap in which we tend to lead the conversation toward our own interests, ideas and concerns. Someone says their child is playing the trombone, and the narcissist says, “Oh, I used to play the trombone. Let me tell you about it.” And off you go for half of an hour lost in memories of their middle school band.

To leave a conversation with both yourself and other people energized, enthused, and even provoked, use supportive assertions and supportive questions. A supportive assertion could be an evaluation such as “That’s awesome!”, or a comment such as “You should check out this article on that.” But even better is something Derber calls the supportive question, which shows active interested engagement in the conversation. A supportive question encourages and deepens the conversation. So the next time someone mentions their child plays the trombone, try saying, “Wow, that’s a difficult instrument. How did she develop an interest in that?”

(You might also enjoy this in-depth article on Charles Derber’s work)