Do you have any friends who talk too much and don’t ask you any questions? Then, you know what it’s like to be stuck in The Listener’s Trap.
But how do you break out of that trap? And how do you know if your relationship is worth saving?
1. Ask their opinion about a problem you have to switch the focus over to you
I like this trick because you can use it in almost any conversation and it’s also interesting for the other person.
Here’s how you use the “opinion trick” in 3 quick and easy steps:
- Think of a problem you have in your life that you don’t know the solution to.
- Ask your friend about their opinion.
- Keep talking a bit more about the problem before you change the subject.
Done! You have now switched the focus of the conversation to you.
Here is an example of how to use the “opinion trick”:
Problem: Should I join a dance course or not?
“I have this problem I want to hear your opinion on. I’m thinking if I should join the new dance course or not. It sounds really fun, but it costs $300 for 10 lessons, and I’m not sure if I’ll fit in. What do you think?”
If your friend isn’t too self-absorbed, he or she will give you some advice and then you can keep talking about it for a bit if you want.
You’ll notice how the conversation feels much better once you’ve got to talk a bit about yourself and your life.
If they don’t really give you any advice or just turn the conversation back to them. Try the “sharing principle” instead.
2. Make sure to share as much as the other person shares
This principle is great if you are talking with someone who doesn’t ask you any questions.
The sharing principle goes like this:
Share as much about yourself as the other person shares about themselves. (Do this EVEN IF they don’t ask you about it.)
Why does this work?
When you start sharing more about yourself, you break the pattern of the listener’s trap. The other person will no longer see you as just the listener so they won’t talk as much.
Also, when you share personal details about yourself, the other person will start becoming more interested and invested in you as a person.
You know, if someone says they bought a lottery ticket – you get curious to know if they won or not. It’s the same thing here, but you need to share something to create that curiosity.
This principle can be challenging if you’re not used to sharing that much about yourself. If you’re like me, you might have to push yourself a bit to start talking more.
Here are some tips on how you can start sharing more:
- At the start of the conversation, after the other person told you about their day. Share a bit about your day. (Try to include one small negative thing and finish it off with something positive.)
- Talk about tricky problems or dilemmas you have where the other person could have an interesting opinion.
If they still don’t seem to care about you or if they turn the conversation back to them again, there’s something else you can try. I call it the “preparation method”.
3. Tell your friend in a constructive way that you need to talk about you, too
Don’t write off a friendship until you have had a conversation with your friend about the problem. Often, people don’t realize that they are monopolizing the conversation. By making them aware of it, you can change the entire dynamics of your friendship.
Ask yourself these questions to prepare before talking about it with your friend:
- What is actually happening in the conversation that is preventing you from talking? (Does my friend interrupt me, or do they simply never pause long enough for me to get a word in? Or do they turn the conversation back to them when you say something? )
- How does it make me feel when this happens?
- How does this affect your relationship with each other?
- What can you do to help improve the issue?
- What can you ask your friend to do to help improve the issue?
Here is an example of a conversation addressing the “listener’s trap”:
“Hey Paul, I wanted to talk to you for a minute. I enjoy hanging out with you, but sometimes I have a hard time getting a chance to talk during our conversations. I care about you as my friend and enjoy hearing about your life, but I need more space to talk about my life as well.”
It can help to acknowledge the positive parts of your friendship. That way your friend doesn’t believe you’re implying that the relationship is all bad. It also reminds you both why the relationship is worth saving.
Another guideline for having a conversation about a problem is to avoid accusations such as, “You always do all the talking”, or “You never listen to me”. Always and never are bad ways to describe something, and it’s more likely to make your friend defensive.
If your friend becomes defensive, they might begin firing back with a list of things they think you do and don’t do, and this paves the way for a full-blown fight.
Using “I” statements (like “I feel” and, “I think”) helps you to make statements only about how you are feeling and what you are thinking. This is different from accusing your friend about what they think and feel (which will make them defensive and upset).
Instead of saying “You do this”, and “You do that”, say instead, “I feel ____________ when __________ happens.”
This makes the same point without making your friend defensive.
And remember, this single conversation can improve your whole friendship.
4. Distance yourself if your friend is toxic
Unfortunately, some people are a lost cause, you can’t change someone who isn’t willing to change.
One-sided relationships are not true friendships. It’s easy to see that it’s not worth it to spend your time and energy on a person like that. But it’s not always easy to break up, especially if you’re a nice person who doesn’t like conflict.
In these cases, I recommend starting to spend less time with that person and focusing more on others. Because why would you invest in a relationship with someone if they don’t give anything back?
When you become more distant, there’s even a chance they will try to “win you back”. If they start to ask you how you are that’s a good sign.
Let them know how serious of a problem their unwillingness to share the conversation is. Hopefully, this will motivate them to make a change.
To be clear, I’m not recommending that you play “hard to get” with your friend. But the act of distancing yourself from the friendship doesn’t have to mean it’s a permanent break.
Some ways to distance yourself include:
- Stop taking phone calls/responding to messages from that person
- Say “no” to invitations to hang out
- Spend more time with other friends instead
- Don’t put yourself in situations where you are likely to meet the toxic friend
Sometimes it can be easier to tell the person that you don’t want to spend time with them anymore. This is difficult and uncomfortable, but it may be necessary to cut away the toxicity from your life.
Your conversation could sound something like this:
“Ashley, I really care about you as a person, but this friendship isn’t healthy for me and I need to spend more time with my other friends instead.”
If you want to go into more detail, you can say:
“We had a conversation before about how I don’t get much space to talk in our conversations, and that hasn’t improved since we discussed it. Our friendship feels one-sided and it’s doing me more harm than good.”
There is no need to be rude or disrespectful, but it’s also unnecessary to mince words or try and sugar-coat the issue. It’s better if they get it sooner rather than later.
5. Look for signs if your friend is toxic or using you
Ask yourself this: Do they really care about you and your feelings? Or, do they only care about themselves and use you to vent about their problems?
If they actually care about you, they might be unaware they talk too much and act so self-centered. In that case, your friendship may be worth saving.
True friendship is built on mutual respect and care for each other. If your friend isn’t interested in your life, you might be their friend, but they are not really your friend.
Here are 10 warning signs to help tell if someone is a bad or toxic friend:
- You don’t look forward to seeing them
- They make you feel bad about yourself
- You don’t get the support or help you need from them
- They often lie to you or others
- They don’t listen when you talk about how you feel
- Do they brush you off and turn the discussion back to themselves when you try to share?
- They get annoyed or talk louder when you try to say something
- It drains your energy to be with them
- They only talk to you when they need something from you
- They don’t ask you any questions about how you are and don’t show they care about you
If a lot of these signs match your relationship, it might not be worth trying to save this relationship.
I have quite a bit of my own experience in this area. Many times I’ve invested in a friendship and tried to be a good friend, but I never got anything in return. To nobody’s surprise, those friendships didn’t last.
In hindsight, I can now see what was happening more clearly…
The majority of the people in those one-sided relationships were using me for something: a ride, money, free therapy, or a place to stay.
If you are always pouring into other people and never being poured into yourself, eventually your cup will run dry. In other words, you only have so much to give if you never get anything back. A healthy friendship is supposed to give you more energy, not less.
This doesn’t mean that everyone who’s a bad listener is using you. Next, we’ll look at the signs of a good friend (who might just be a bad listener).
6. Look for signs if your friend cares about you (even if they only talk about themselves)
Here are 10 good signs to help tell if someone cares about you:
- You look forward to seeing them
- They make you feel good about yourself
- They support and help you when you need it
- They are honest with you
- They care about how you feel
- They ask you questions that show they care
- They are interested in what you have to say and what you think
- You feel inspired and energized after meeting them
- They want to hang out with you without any hidden reasons (like asking for favors)
- You know that they’ll be there for you if you need them
If you can see that more than 1 of these signs match your friendship, it may be worth saving.
So, let’s talk about what you can do with your friend who only talks about herself/himself and doesn’t show interest in you.
7. Break the pattern where you are the listener
Here’s a quote from a reader of ours that I think is a great example of the listener’s trap:
“After about 6 months of “friendship”, these people turn to me as someone to talk to, as I always seem interested in their daily affairs.
The difficulty is that my friends just want to talk about themselves. I am afraid that if I start talking about myself, these friends would find me whiny and stop being friends with me!
I personally think that I may be not interesting enough to people, and thus people don’t seem to take interest in what I say or do – they just like me for being someone they can vent to or talk to or seek advice from.
At first, I enjoyed the attention but right now I’m getting a little tired of this as it never seems to be my turn to speak – the conversation always turns back to them.”
This is a common trap when you start becoming a better listener: Most people love to talk about themselves and their problems to a good listener.
In the beginning, when you develop your listening ability, it feels great.
People will want to talk to you for hours, about themselves… And you probably keep it going by asking good follow-up questions, reflecting on what they said, and making them feel heard.
But in the heat of the moment, you might ignore what you think is interesting and focus on what you notice that they like talking about.
The problem here is that you’ve created a pattern in your relationship where you’re the listener, and they’re the talker.
It’s natural for them to assume you like to listen because that’s what you’ve shown with your behavior. So that’s how the pattern is created. And then you start feeling trapped always being the listener.
What we really want is a balanced relationship where we can talk about things we BOTH find interesting, not what just one of us finds interesting.
8. Talk about commonalities to teach people that you aren’t just going to be the listener
When it comes to new relationships, make sure to establish a more balanced relationship from the start. It’s a lot easier than trying to get out of the listener’s trap.
To do this, first focus on finding commonalities. By talking about mutual interests, you both get to talk about topics you enjoy.
Not only will you enjoy the conversation more, but the other person should have less of a problem letting you speak when you’re talking about something they are also interested in.
(Disclaimer: Some people believe they are the experts on every topic and interest and continue to monopolize the discussion anyway. We’ll discuss how to deal with that a little later).
When a relationship is in its early stages, make an effort to bond with the other person by sharing about your own life in addition to listening to them talk about theirs. While you want to show that you are a good listener, it’s important to understand the balance involved in making good conversation.
If you set yourself up to only be a listener, they may come to believe you don’t want to talk and feel that they have to carry the conversation to avoid awkward silences.
9. “I’m afraid that if I start talking about myself, they would find me whiny and stop being friends with me.”
As I mentioned, this is why it’s so important to find mutual interests in your friendship and use these as the bulk of your conversation topics.
However, true friendships will provide you with the time and safe space you need to share the details of your life.
Genuine friends will care enough about you to listen to things about your life that aren’t particularly interesting to them; to put it differently, some things may only be interesting to your friends because they’re interesting to you and they care about you.
As a good friend, you will do the same for your friends by listening to details about their hobbies and interests that may not also be your hobbies and interests.
This is true for any type of relationship, and I have an example:
I am really passionate about plants (especially anything edible, and also orchids), but my girlfriend doesn’t really care for it that much. Still, she’ll entertain me and let me talk about all the latest happenings with my plants from time to time. I think she at least enjoys my passion and seeing how happy I am about it.
And on the other side, she’s really interested in cute animal videos, while I’m not. But I’ll still indulge her from time to time and watch something with her. I still like seeing what she likes and I love seeing her happy.
But on the whole, I’d say 90% of our topics are mutual interests.
Part of any healthy friendship or another type of relationship is learning how to balance your conversations between those that are mutually interesting and those that are specific to only one of you. It is this balance that will help you avoid sounding “whiny” when you talk about yourself.
In addition, when talking about yourself do it once per conversation and then be done talking about it (unless they ask you more about it).
Next time you see them, it’s fine to catch them up on anything else that’s happened related to the situation, but again, don’t turn it into something that you harp on the entire time.
David told me about a mindset that simplifies the idea of mutual interests. He said: “I have the ambition to talk about what the other person also finds interesting.”
It’s not about NEVER being allowed to talk about anything else, it’s simply about making mutual interests your primary focus.
For example, I have one friend I rarely talk psychology with (even if it’s a big part of my life), because I know he’s not interested in that. But I also know he’s very interested in nutrition and health, so I might bring that up in a conversation with him. We can talk about it for hours sometimes.
Then I have another friend who’s not really interested in nutrition, but he loves discussing philosophy and also deeper personal issues. So I talk more about that with him.
With another friend, I talk more about politics, traveling, and gaming.
And so it goes. The point is that I rarely talk about something that ONLY interests me, like my daily affairs or a special interest. Instead, I find something that interests the BOTH of us. That way I can keep a balanced and rewarding conversation where we both talk about as much.
Also, keep the 50/50-rule in mind: Talk about as much as you listen.
The 50/50-rule helps remind me to keep my conversations balanced, especially when I find myself beginning to ramble.
Learning to have balanced conversations can help you avoid sounding whiny whenever you talk about yourself to your friends.
10. How to judge if your relationship is worth saving
According to one study on modern friendships, the characteristics of true friendship are an important part of our mental and emotional support system as we develop throughout our lives. These qualities “include self-disclosure and liking, help and support, shared interests and activities, and expressions of closeness.” (1)
The study also discovered that the participants’ valued friendships the most when they BOTH had fun together. They described those friendships as “inclusive. (1)
If you’re unable to share your life (“self-disclosure”) and your interests/activities with someone, then you can ask yourself if it is a friendship at all. Also, if the person you’re spending time with never lets you talk, it’s not an inclusive friendship.
Here’s what I’m getting at: According to research-based definitions of friendship, a person who never lets you talk may not really be your friend at all. This realization can change the way you go about things as you attempt to break out of the listener’s trap.
In a real friendship, abruptly changing the things you do or the way you act can be awkward. But if the relationship isn’t a real friendship, it probably won’t make much of a difference when you make changes. If your “friend” spends all your time together talking about himself or herself, they may not even notice.
The “listener’s trap” isn’t a fun place to be; it’s harmful to your friendships and harmful to you by causing you to miss out in your relationships. Breaking free of this trap isn’t easy, but it is possible and you can do it one small step at a time.
Are you stuck in the “listener’s trap” with any of your friends? Describe your situation in the comments below and I’ll give you my best advice!
- Niland, P., Lyons, A. C., Goodwin, I., & Hutton, F. 2015. Friendship work on facebook: Young adults’ understanding and practice of friendship. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 25. 123-137. DOI: 10.1002/casp.2201.