We just got an email about getting stuck in the “listener 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 they 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.
So, I’d like to ask for some advice – without coming across as fake, what can we do to make ourselves more interesting to our peers?”
Great question Darrel!
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.
So how do you break out of “the listener trap”?
When it comes to new relationships, make sure to establish a more balanced relationship from the start.
To do this, first focus on finding commonalities. When you have found a few good topics of mutual interest, you will be able to hear from the other person on something you’re interested in as well as share your own thoughts and opinions on a topic you enjoy. Click here to learn how to determine another person’s interests.
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 of interest they hold, and may continue to monopolize the discussion as a result. We’ll discuss how to handle these types of people a little later).
In addition, true friendships are built on bonding and rapport-building. If the other person does not appear interested in your life, the reality is that while you might be their friend, they are not really your friend.
I have quite a bit of my own experience in this area. Multiple times in the past I have found myself investing in someone in an effort to be a good friend to them, but I wasn’t getting anything in return. Unsurprisingly, those “friendships” didn’t last. As it turns out, the majority of the people in those one-sided relationships were using me for something: a ride, money, a place to stay, etc.
This isn’t to say that everyone who’s a bad listener is using you; some people are simply that– bad listeners. But 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 are not benefitting from the encouragement and mental replenishment that come from having a healthy friendship.
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.
But if you do make an effort to participate in the conversation and they consistently brush you off and turn the discussion back to themselves, have a tough conversation about it if you feel the relationship is worth saving. We’ll explain exactly how to have this conversation in a few minutes.
Otherwise, it may be time to move on and invest your time and energy in other friendships.
But what if you’re already stuck listening?
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, expressions of closeness.”1
The study also discovered that the participants’ most prized friendships were those that were described, among other things, as “inclusive.” The best friendships were found to be those in which all participants were able to have fun together.1
If you’re unable to share your life (“self-disclosure”) and your interests/activities with someone, then it can be debated whether the relationship in question is a true friendship at all. Furthermore, if the person you’re spending time with never lets you talk, he/she is certainly not inclusive of you and therefore it’s doubtful that you actually have fun with this person.
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 trap.
In a legitimate 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 suddenly start making changes. In fact, if the person spends all your time together talking about themself, they may not notice at all.
So what changes should you make to an existing relationship in which you’ve found yourself stuck in the listener trap?
First, start attempting to talk instead of just resigning yourself to listening. Although most of us have been taught since childhood that interrupting someone is rude and to be avoided, with this type of friendship it may be necessary for you to force your way into the conversation so that you can actually participate.
Hopefully the other person will have enough awareness to recognize this as an indication that you would like to talk as well. It may take a little while, but fighting your way into the discussion may help the other person to begin including you more willingly.
However, if this doesn’t work it’s probably time to confront your friend about the issue.
How can I talk to my friend about the problem?
Like we mentioned above, you should never write off a friendship until you have had a conversation with your friend about the problem you are experiencing. In many cases, people don’t realize that they are monopolizing the conversation and (kindly) making them aware of it will work wonders toward improving your friendship.
It’s important to plan a specific time to have this conversation so that you can adequately prepare; deciding to address the issue spur-of-the-moment because you are frustrated with how the conversation is proceeding is much more likely to lead to unsuccessful results.
Some things to consider before addressing the “listener trap” with your friend include:
- What is actually happening in the conversation that is preventing me from having a chance to speak? (i.e. does my friend interrupt me, or does he simply never pause long enough for me to get a word in?)
- How does it make me feel when this happens, and how am I handling those feelings?
- What can I to do to help improve the issue?
- What can I reasonably ask my friend to do to help improve the issue?
Avoid using absolutes when you are describing the problem to your friend, such as “You/I always ___________,” or “You/I never ___________.” Always and never are rarely accurate ways to describe something, and using extremes is more likely to make your friend feel defensive.
An example of a conversation addressing the “listener trap” can be found below:
“Hey Paul, I wanted to talk to you for a minute. I really enjoy hanging out with you, but sometimes I feel like I have a hard time getting a chance to talk during our conversations. I really care about you as my friend and enjoy hearing about your life, but I would like it if I had an opportunity to share somethings with you about my life as well.”
It can be helpful to acknowledge the positive aspects of your friendship and the good times you have together so that your friend doesn’t believe you’re implying that the relationship is all bad; bringing up the things you like about your friendship can also serve as motivation to resolve the problem you’re discussing by reminding you both why the relationship is worth saving.
Another critical guideline for having a conversation about a problem in a friendship is to avoid making any accusatory statements, such as, “You always do all of the talking,” or, “You never listen to me.”
Not only are “always” and “never” no-no’s when it comes to conflict resolution, like we mentioned before, you’re also playing a dangerous game when you begin listing off all the things your friend does or doesn’t do.
Not only will this make them defensive, it will give them a reason to 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 argument. An argument is not the goal of this conversation.
Using “I” statements (“I feel” and “I think”) helps you to make statements only about how you are feeling and what you are thinking instead of being accusatory toward your friend or making assumptions about what they are thinking and feeling– which will likely 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 in a less aggressive manner and without requiring you to call your friend out directly.
Having a conversation with your friend about the “listener trap” is one simple way to improve both the quality of your conversations and your friendship as a whole.
What if I can’t break out of “the listener trap”?
Again, one-sided relationships are not true friendships, and spending a lot of time with someone who is not a good friend to you isn’t healthy.
Unfortunately, some people are more of a lost cause, as you can’t change someone who isn’t willing to change. In these cases, we recommend starting to spend less time with that person and focus on other potential friends. Why build a relationship with someone if they don’t give anything back?
There’s always a chance that when the person starts to realize you’re becoming more distant, they will ask you if something is wrong. This will give you another opportunity to let them know how serious of a problem their unwillingness to share the conversation really is, and hopefully this will motivate them to make a change.
To be clear, we aren’t recommending that you play “hard to get” with your friend. Simply do what you feel is best, and realize that distancing yourself from the friendship doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a permanent break.
Some ways to distance yourself include:
- Gradually stop taking phone calls/responding to messages from that person
- Say “no” to invitations to hang out
- Begin spending the time that would’ve been spent with that person with other friends instead
- Don’t put yourself in situations where you are likely to encounter that person
Sometimes it can be easier and more convenient for everyone involved to simply tell the person that you don’t want to spend as much (or any) time with them anymore. I know from personal experience that this is a difficult and uncomfortable thing to do, but sometimes it is necessary to cut unhealthy relationships from your life. Your conversation may 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 it’s difficult for me to participate in our conversations, and that problem hasn’t improved since we last discussed it. Our friendship feels very one-sided and continuing to stay in a friendship like that is 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.
“I am afraid that if I start talking about myself, these friends would find me whiny and stop being friends with me.”
Like we’ve discussed previously, 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 about the details of your life, even if they aren’t things the other person is necessarily interested in. You simply have to make sure that this isn’t all (or even most) of what you talk about.
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.
My husband earned his Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Physical sciences, particularly nuclear and chemical sciences, are a passion of his– and not at all a passion (or even a remote interest) of mine. Knowing this about me, does this mean that he never talks to me about nuclear and chemical sciences? Of course not! Because he knows I care about him and want to hear about his passions– for a certain amount of time, that is.
On the flip side, I am passionate about the human mind and how it functions, and this is not of special interest to my husband. Just like I listen to him talk about his passions, he listens to me talk about mine– again, for a certain amount of time.
Part of any healthy friendship or other 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 it’s important to tell your friends about it once and then be done talking about it for the remainder of the social event (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 I like 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 I don’t share with that person. Instead, I find something that interests the BOTH of us. That way I can keep a balanced and rewarding conversation where we talk about as much.
It’s also important to keep the 50/50 rule in mind: Talk about as much as you listen. That 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.
“What can we do to make ourselves more interesting to our peers?”
Becoming an interesting person who people want to be friends with is not that much about making ourselves more interesting; it’s more about finding and talking about what you both find interesting. Find commonalities and focus on them in conversations. People are drawn to others who are rewarding to talk to. Here, it’s important to follow the advice in this article on why some people make lots of friends and others make close friends.
Someone who is rewarding to talk to is someone who can:
- Provide valuable/interesting information related to a topic you both enjoy, and/or
- Ask relevant questions about a topic they are less knowledgeable of but have a genuine desire to learn more about.
For a person who has no interest in traveling, you won’t be interesting to talk to because you’ve traveled a lot. (Rather the opposite, you just become an annoying person who talks about something uninteresting). However, when you do come across others who are interested in traveling, you’ll be very interesting to them because you’ll have things in common.
In summary: Get out there, meet new people, say YES to opportunities, find a hobby, volunteer, do stuff that matters to you.
These things won’t, in themselves, make you an interesting person; people who don’t share the same passions just won’t be that interested. However, these things will help you when you DO come across people who share the same passions.
The “listener trap” isn’t a fun place to be; it’s harmful to your friendships and harmful to you by causing you to miss out on the many mental and emotional benefits that good friendships can provide. 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 trap” with any of your friends? What’s one thing you can do today to help yourself break free? Let us know in the comments!
- 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.