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The Science Of Why We Talk Too Much (And How To Shut Up)

Our brains are wired to reward us for talking about ourselves. But droning on about yourself is a horrible way to make a good impression.

The Science Of Why We Talk Too Much (And How To Shut Up)
[Photo: Flickr user greg westfall]

You probably talk too much. And there is a good reason for that. Science says that humans, being social animals, are programmed to use communication as a vital tool to survive and thrive.

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This wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that science also tells us that our favorite subject to discuss is ourselves. People spend 60% of their conversations talking about themselves, 80% when chatting on social media. The reason, researchers found, was that it just feels good. So much so that Harvard psychologists discovered that individuals were willing to give up money for the opportunity to disclose information about themselves.

Unfortunately, this propensity to pontificate is at odds with our collectively dwindling attention spans, which have been measured between as many as 59 seconds, to as few as eight seconds, thanks to a barrage of information from both verbal and digital sources.

The ideal conversation should be a total give and take, with each person speaking about 50% of the time. That means staying quiet half the time, a tough, but influential, tool for business. As Peter Bregman notes in Harvard Business Review:

Silence is a greatly underestimated source of power. In silence, we can hear not only what is being said, but also what is not being said. In silence, it can be easier to reach the truth.

To ensure you’re giving your conversation partner equal time–and learning as much as you can–Mark Goulston, a business psychiatrist, says it’s important to pay attention to the three stages of speaking to other people.

  1. The business stage: on task, relevant and concise
  2. The feel-good stage: so wonderful and tension-relieving for you, you don’t even notice the other person is not listening.
  3. The off-track attempt to recover stage: rather than re-engaging by listening, the usual impulse is to talk even more in an effort to regain their interest. (See the aforementioned Harvard research results.)

Goulston writes that he, too, was guilty of this, even after writing a book called, Just Listen. That’s when coach and NPR radio show host Marty Nemko told him he needed to start practicing what he preached.

Nemko offered the following traffic-light strategy to rein in the chatter:

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  • You get a green light during the first 20 seconds. “Your listener is liking you, as long as your statement is relevant to the conversation and hopefully in service of the other person.”
  • Yellow light 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.”

Observing the time isn’t the only strategy for engaging in healthy communication. Goulston writes that the next step is to determine why you talk so much. One reason may be that you’re trying to impress your conversation partner, especially if you aren’t all that confident on the inside. Some people babble out of nerves, attempting to self-soothe while chattering. Still others have never been taught the fine art of asking the right questions that will draw the other person out, and then staying quiet while they answer.

As Bregman says, “We all know how to be silent. The question is: Can we withstand the pressure to speak?”

For those who need help to keep quiet, Bregman recommends treating it as a competition.

If you answer your own question, you’ve lost. You’ll be answering your own questions all day, and no one else will do the work. But wait in the silence–no matter how long–until someone in the group speaks. And they will then continue to do the work necessary to lead themselves.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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