How to Deal With People Who Dominate Conversations

A better way is to first determine: Is this a one-time thing or a consistent pattern?

How can you deal with people who dominate conversations? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

This is a tough one! There is a saying, “You can’t out slob a slob” — which basically means that just as you cannot get someone to change their behavior by mimicking their bad behavior and hoping they’ll get the point, you can’t manage people who dominate a conversation by, for instance, trying to talk over them and dominate the conversation yourself. Chances are, they won’t even notice what you’re trying to do. (And if they do, is that really what you want them to notice about you?)

A better way is to first determine: Is this a one-time thing or a consistent pattern? If it’s a one-off — perhaps because the person is very excited about a topic — it might be okay to let it slide and let them have their moment. You can also gently acknowledge their enthusiasm (and dominance) in conversation, which can be a helpful nudge for them to slow down. You can say something like, “It seems like you have a lot to say about this!”, or even create an opening for yourself to chime in by noting, “I can sense your excitement about this. Can I add something?”. These small nudges can be effective when others are caught up in the moment.

But sometimes, the behavior is consistent, and when others dominate the conversation, meetings drag on, family dinners become a snooze, and friend catch ups quickly turn into one-sided therapy sessions. When one voice dominates, it’s no longer a conversation — it’s a monologue. To combat this, I recommend focusing on what is in your power. It is virtually impossible to change someone else’s behavior (think about how hard it is to change your own, then 10x that), so the best you can do is:

Model the behavior you wish to see. Show them what you want to see in conversation. Take care to be inclusive and inviting of others’ perspectives, whether that’s in a meeting (What does this side of the table think?) or a family dinner (What’s new in your world, dad?).

Ask for what you need. In trusting relationships, you can practice self-advocacy by letting your conversation partner know how their behavior is impacting you and what you need from them in conversation. For example, saying something like, “I noticed recently in conversation we tend to focus on how you are doing but rarely touch upon my experience. I love being a sounding board for you, but sometimes I also need advice. Would you be open to shifting the conversation? I would feel more connected to you if our conversations were more in balance.” The key is to gently point out the situation, the behavior, and the impact of their behavior, and to offer an alternative way forward. My book also makes an excellent gift for over-talkers and under-listeners :)

Timebox the conversation. If the relationship is not one in which you feel comfortable stating your needs, timeboxing the conversation can help. Timeboxing means giving our conversation partner a set amount of time before we move on from a conversation. It can look like: setting a time limit up front (I only have twenty minutes to chat, but I’m all ears until then), choosing a setting with time constraints built in (have lunch with your too-chatty coworker at a busy restaurants where tables must turn over quickly instead of a slow cafe where you can linger for hours), deliberately scheduling a conflict for afterwards to grease the wheels and ease the guilt on your exit (I’m excited to catch up — I have until 2pm before I need to leave for an appointment), or setting an alarm (no one needs to know what the alarm is for but you, and most people won’t ask when it goes off and you say “I have to get going now”).

Use a diversion. The best conversation exits make it more about you than the other person. They are courteous and to the point and suggest a competing priority or activity requires your attention. They can sound like: “I have to get going now, but it was good to see you.” Or, “I’m sure you’re very busy, so I’ll let you go now.” Or, “I won’t take up more of your time now, I’d better go.”

Interrupt. Usually, interrupting in conversation is to be avoided at all costs, since we miss an opportunity to learn about another person. But when someone is dominating the conversation, waiting for an opening may not be possible. If we are running out of time or energy, feel unsafe, or have reached a personal limit in conversation, interrupting becomes a necessary form of self-advocacy. The best way to politely interrupt is to acknowledge you are interrupting and firmly state your need to exit or redirect the conversation. For example: “I’m so sorry to interrupt, but we really must take off now.” Or, “I’m sorry to have to hit pause here, but I have a meeting I need to get to” Or, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to stop you there— I don’t feel comfortable discussing this right now.”

Distance yourself. If the behavior is consistent and isn’t improving, and this isn’t a relationship you are obligated to maintain (ie: in-laws, coworkers, others who you have a social or cultural obligation to get along with), it may be time to set a boundary and distance yourself. This needn’t be fraught or dramatic. Distancing yourself is the act of intentionally and progressively reducing interactions with a conversation partner over time. It’s typically reserved for extreme behavior, when other techniques have failed to help us gain equal footing in conversation. In this case, you can:

Reduce interactions — make your weekly happy hour monthly instead

Generate space — notice how quickly you respond to this person’s beck and call. Pause and determine if an immediate response is necessary, or simply an impulse.

Be open to changing course — if the other person notices you are setting a boundary and wishes to talk about it, be open to having a conversation and reevaluating whether continuing to distance yourself from the relationship still makes sense.

You can find Ximena's book, Listen Like You Mean It, here.

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