You may have heard the saying, “When you’re in love, smoke gets in your eyes.” Well when you’re talking, smoke gets in your eyes and ears. Once you’re on a roll, it’s very easy to not notice that you’ve worn out your welcome. You may not even realize that the other person is politely trying to get a word in, or subtly signaling that they need to be elsewhere (possibly, anywhere else if you have been really boring).
There are three stages of speaking to other people. In the first stage, you’re on task, relevant and concise. But then you unconsciously discover that the more you talk, the more you feel relief. Ahh, so wonderful and tension-relieving for you… but not so much fun for the receiver. This is the second stage – when it feels so good to talk, you don’t even notice the other person is not listening.
The third stage occurs after you have lost track of what you were saying and begin to realize you might need to reel the other person back in. If during the third stage of this monologue poorly disguised as a conversation you unconsciously sense that the other person is getting a bit fidgety, guess what happens then?
Unfortunately, rather than finding a way to reengage your innocent victim through having them talk and then listening to them, instead the usual impulse is to talk even more in an effort to regain their interest.
Why does this happen? First, the very simple reason that all human beings have a hunger to be listened to. But second, because the process of talking about ourselves releases dopamine, the pleasure hormone. One of the reasons gabby people keep gabbing is because they become addicted to that pleasure.
Not long after my book, Just Listen, came out, I too succumbed to ignoring signs that I had started to annoy my friend and fellow coach, Marty Nemko,
host of a radio show about work on KALW, NPR’s San Francisco affiliate. He and I have been coaching each other for some time. He hit a nerve when he told me, “Mark, for an expert on listening, you need to talk less and listen more.”
After I recovered from the embarrassment, he pointed out a nifty strategy that I have been using. It’s helping me and it might help you. Nemko calls it the Traffic Light Rule. He says it works better when talking with most people, especially with Type A personalities, who tend to be less patient.
In the first 20 seconds of talking, your light is green: your listener is liking you, as long as your statement is relevant to the conversation and hopefully in service of the other person. But unless you are an extremely gifted raconteur, people who talk for more than roughly half minute at a time are boring and often perceived as too chatty. So the light turns yellow for the next 20 seconds— now the risk is increasing that the other person is beginning to lose interest or think you’re long-winded. At the 40-second mark, your light is red. Yes, there’s an occasional time you want to run that red light and keep talking, but the vast majority of the time, you’d better stop or you’re in danger.
Nemko says that following the Traffic Light Rule is just the first step in keeping you from talking too much. It’s also important to determine your underlying motivation for talking so much. Is it that it just feels good to go on and on and get more stuff off your chest? Do you talk to clarify your thinking? Or do you talk because you often have to listen to other people, and when you’ve found someone who will let you have the microphone you just can’t help yourself?
Whatever the cause, filibustering is usually a conversational turn-off, and may result in both of you deteriorating into alternating monologues. And that certainly will do little to move the conversation or your relationship forward.
One reason some people are long-winded is because they’re trying to impress their conversational counterpart with how smart they are, often because they don’t actually feel that way underneath. If this is the case for you, realize that continuing to talk will only cause the other person to be less impressed.
Of course, some people who talk too much simply “may not have a sense of the passage of time,” Nemko says. If this is the case, the cure is not to look inside yourself for psychological insight. It’s just to develop a better internal sense of how long 20 and 40 seconds are. Start to use a watch to catch yourself, for example, when on the phone. You’ll get in the habit of stopping an utterance when your light is still green, or at least yellow.
Finally, remember that even 20 seconds of talking can be a turn off if you don’t include the other person in the conversation. To avoid that, ask questions, try to build on what they say, and look for ways to include them in the conversation so it is a genuine dialogue instead of a diatribe.
Well I think my 40 seconds is up, so I’ll stop here.
Mark Goulston, M.D., F.A.P.A. is a business psychiatrist, executive advisor, keynote speaker, and CEO and Founder of the Goulston Group. He is the author of Just Listen (Amacom, 2015) and co-author of Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In (Amacom, 2013).
Copyright 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.