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In a conversation we prefer to talk about ourselves: ‘And that’s a shame’

You sit on a birthday, in the sports hall, in a pub, at school, at work or on a bench in your neighborhood, and you tell something to someone. And the person immediately responds with: “Oh! I had that once too!” Or, “I recognize that!”

Presumably for many people a recognizable scene taken from everyday life. Because: we are better talkers than listeners. That is what American journalist Kate Murphy writes in her new book You don’t listen, for which she investigated why people can listen so badly, and what listening can bring to people.

In her book, Murphy comes up with a term for people who prefer to talk about themselves: conversation narcissism.

Bad listeners

“We are constantly talking about ourselves,” says Noëlle Aarts, professor of socio-ecological interactions at Radboud University. She specializes in conversations and notes that we are often poor listeners.

“I have given quite a few dialogue training sessions, and it always turns out that talking is not such a problem. But keeping silent and using your ears … That was another story. People are really able to turn the conversation around in a split second. turning to itself. ”

The intention is good

But why is it that we always like to talk about ourselves and ‘hijack’ the conversation? “We often mean well,” says Aarts. “If you tell me something, I will tell you that I have also experienced something like that, because I want to connect, show an understanding.”

Aarts calls it a ‘fundamental need’. “When we tell a story, a fun hormone is released into our brain. It makes us feel good and gives us the feeling that we matter.”

“When you tell a story, it also forms your identity at the same time,” says José Sanders, professor of narrative communication at Radboud University. In other words, we become a bit of what we tell. “And that happens by talking; listening supports that identity formation.”

What not to do …

According to scientist Noëlle Aarts, it is important not to immediately express your opinion when someone tells you something. “Sometimes people start out very clearly and hard, and then you will notice that when you let them finish talking, people will naturally explain and nuance their opinion. You just have to give them space.”

A big pitfall for people who want to keep a conversation going is that they start questioning people, as it were. Like a journalist or a detective. “That’s really awful,” says Sanders. “A lot of people are not waiting for that.”

To practise

According to her, it takes practice and modesty, and a little feeling. “It is also good to realize that not everyone wants to tell about themselves. It is a matter of probing how much space the other wants to take.”

Anyone who is afraid that his conversation partner is taking up too much space can drop that idea. Aarts: “There are people who don’t stop talking once they have started, but most of them correct themselves fairly quickly. There almost always comes a time when they ask: and what about you?”

The consequence of conversation narcissism is that you do not connect. For example, Aarts says: “Actually you only forced the other person to tell your own story, while the person might have wanted to tell his own story.”

Continue for years

The American journalist Murphy states in her book that if you listen to people carefully, you will have built up a friendship within two months. If you just tell them, you can continue doing that for years without connecting with people.

“I really believe in that,” says Aarts. “We have to take an interest in other people. If you let others tell you, you get that connection. Moreover, you learn something new when you hear others talking, not when you hear yourself tell.”

In other words, we have to learn to listen to bites, according to these two professors. But: how do we do that?

“It is very difficult to just decide: from now on I will listen carefully,” says Sanders. “But if you want to make commitments, build something with someone, you have to systematically show interest in the other.” Preferably unfeigned interest, but even if you don’t feel that interest, it helps to resolve to listen carefully.

“Even if you think: what would this person have to tell me, beautiful things can come out of it.”

It functions

“Everyone has a story,” says Aarts. According to her, it is ‘against our inclination’ to listen, but sometimes you can explicitly tell yourself: I’m not going to talk about myself now. “Just hold back. And train yourself in asking questions.”

Sanders emphasizes that open questions (‘clean questions’ in science) are the most important. Tell me? How was that for you? What happened then? Why do you think that was?

There is no answer in those questions, and that way you invite the other person to tell a story.


“And then you will notice that that person not only tells his or her story, but also ‘finds’ and expresses his or her story on the spot. Your interlocutor makes the story with you. With your help.”

And that is, Sanders says, the moment when connection is established. “Beautiful right?”


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