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One trick to becoming a better conversationalist

One trick to becoming a better conversationalist

When a friend is venting out their frustrations, you may wonder about how to commiserate with them without making it all about yourself.

To walk this fine line, author and public speaker Celeste Headlee suggested paying more attention to our attempts at empathising. In her book We Need to Talk, which was excerpted on HuffPost, she recalled a conversation she had with a friend who just lost her dad.

“She was absolutely distraught and I didn’t know what to say to her … So, I started talking about how I grew up without a father,” she wrote.

“But after I related this story, my friend looked at me and snapped, ‘Okay, Celeste, you win. You never had a dad, and I at least got to spend 30 years with mine. You had it worse. I guess I shouldn’t be so upset that my dad just died.’

“I was stunned and mortified. My immediate reaction was to plead my case. ‘No, no, no,’ I said, ‘that’s not what I’m saying at all. I just meant that I know how you feel.’ And she answered, ‘No, Celeste, you don’t. You have no idea how I feel.’”

Headlee’s reaction was what sociologist Charles Derber called a “shift response”, or a response that brings attention back to oneself. Derber identified shift responses as a sign of “conversational narcissism”, which is a tendency to insert oneself into the topic and take over as the focus of the exchange.

To avoid this, Headlee advised to instead go for “support response”, where the reply is simply made to support the other person’s statement. Some of her examples included:

Shift Response

Karen: I need new shoes.

Mark: Me too. These things are falling apart. 

Support Response

Karen: I need new shoes.

Mark: Oh yeah? What kind are you thinking about?

Shift Response

Mary: I’m so busy right now.

Tim: Me too. I’m totally overwhelmed.

 Support Response

 Mary: I’m so busy right now.

 Tim: Why? What do you have to get done?