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Be a Better Conversationalist by 'Supporting' Instead of 'Shifting'

Meghan Moravcik Walbert Jun 11, 2019. 6 comments

The last time a friend told you how busy they’ve been, did you respond with “Omg, SAME”? If you did, you might be what one sociologist calls a “conversational narcissist ,” and it could be damaging your relationships.

Human often sympathize with others by drawing on their own experiences. Got stuck in a traffic jam this morning? Let me tell you about the EPIC traffic jam I experience a couple of months ago! We often mean well when we do this—we’re trying to show that we understand what the other person is feeling. But as author Celeste Headlee discovered, we often don’t know what the other person is feeling and we inadvertently minimize their own emotions by covering them with ours.

She tells the story in her book, We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter , which was excerpted in HuffPost (and which I found via Extraordinary Routines):

A good friend of mine lost her dad some years back. I found her sitting alone on a bench outside our workplace, not moving, just staring at the horizon. She was absolutely distraught and I didn’t know what to say to her. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving and vulnerable. So, I started talking about how I grew up without a father. I told her that my dad had drowned in a submarine when I was only 9 months old and I’d always mourned his loss, even though I’d never known him. I just wanted her to realize that she wasn’t alone, that I’d been through something similar and could understand how she felt.

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.”

Headlee’s response to her friend is what sociologist Charles Derber calls a “shift response,” rather than a “support response.” We shift the focus of the conversation back to ourselves rather than encouraging the other person to continue their story.

The easiest way to “support” rather than “shift” is by asking a follow-up question, rather than saying something that resembles, “oh yeah, me too!” Here’s what that looks like in practice, Headlee says:

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?

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?

Using a supporting versus shifting response is especially important when someone you know is grieving. “I’m so sorry,” and “That sounds very difficult,” never seems like enough when someone you love is hurting. But giving them the space to talk about their pain—and showing them that you’re truly listening—is more healing than forcing them to compare their grief with yours.


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