We just got an email about getting stuck in the “listener trap”:
“[…] to make friends, we got to be interested in the other party, and people make friends with people who make them feel good about themselves. I believe I have done so, by being interested in others’ daily lives, and made new friends.
However, after about 6 months of “friendship”, these people turn to me as someone to talk to, as I’ll always seem to be interested in their daily affairs. The difficulty is that after listening to them talk, they don’t seem to give the slightest about my own daily affairs – they just want to talk about themselves. Most of my newfound friends are like this. 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?
Your question is interesting and it’s something I’ve had to deal with myself.
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 this 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 etc.
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.
Eventually, you start noticing they hardly ask anything about you and you don’t get to talk that much about stuff you find interesting.
The problem here is that you have created a pattern in your relationship where you are the listener, and they are the talker. It’s natural that they assume you like to listen, because that’s what you’ve indicated with your behavior. So the pattern remains and you may feel trapped in this role.
What we really want, long-term, 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.
Don’t let yourself get stuck listening for too long. Instead, focus on finding commonalities first. Then, you can talk about something you are both interested in. That way you give something of value to the other person instead of just talking about yourself or what you find interesting.
But what if you’re already stuck listening?
For existing relationships, you want to start sharing more stories or thoughts rather than just listening. It’s important to understand that there’s no magic bullet that will make the other person start asking you lots of questions on a regular basis. Most people just aren’t that socially skilled (or interested in others).
Instead, you have to take the responsibility if you want it to happen. But you don’t just want to talk about anything that interests you. Always talk about what you are both interested in. I can’t stress this enough:
For a friendship to work long-term, you need to find mutual interests and use these as the foundation for your conversations.
Once you’ve found mutual interests, you can start talking more about these and still be listened to. These interests don’t need to be the “passions of your lives”. It should just be something you’re sure that both of you enjoy talking about. Here’s a great article by David about finding mutual interests.
But what if the other person just keeps talking about themselves and never lets me talk?
Unfortunately, some people are too self-centered or lacking in social skills that they don’t notice or realize you want to talk, too. You could bring it up with them in a constructive way. I’ve actually done this myself with a few friends and I’ve been surprised by how willing most of them have been to change when they realize their error.
However, some people are more of a lost cause, as you can’t change someone who isn’t willing to change. In those cases, I recommend starting to invest less time in that person and focus on other potential friends. Why build a relationship with someone if they don’t give anything back?
“I am afraid that if I start talking about myself, these friends would find me whiny and stop being friends with me.”
It’s a possibility, because to be frank, just talking about yourself usually aren’t that interesting to anyone but you. Here’s why finding commonalities is so important: If you focus on finding commonalities and then talk about something you both find interesting, it will be rewarding for the both of you.
David told me about a mindset that I like that simplifies the idea of mutual interests. He said: “I have the ambition to always talk about what the other person also finds interesting”. It’s not about NEVER being allowed to talk about anything else, but with that ambition you will come a long way.
For example, I have one friend I never 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 start talking too much.
I can’t stress this enough: If we talk too much whenever we get a question, people will soon stop asking us questions. No one wants to open those floodgates. Nobody wants to listen to a long monologue.
“What can we do to make ourselves more interesting to our peers?”
Becoming an interesting person that 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 David gave in his article on why some make lots of friends and others make close friends.
For a person who has no interest in traveling, you won’t become more interesting to talk to if 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 become more interesting to them, because you’ll have things in common.
So, go 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 to anyone: People who don’t share the same interests just don’t care. Instead, these things will help you when you DO come across people who share these interests.
I’m not saying it’s easy, because it isn’t. But it is possible and you can do it one small step at a time.
What’s one step you could take today to do something out of your everyday life?
Reply in the comments below. I’ll try to answer everyone!