Conversational Boomerangs

Conversational Boomerangs

” I’m crying because we had to put our dog down yesterday”, Edith explained to her friend, Ann.

“Oh, I know just how you feel. We had to put our 9-year-old dog down and I remember how we all cried for days…blah, blah, blah”.

Edith wanted sympathy, not be burdened with a similar sad saga. We need to intentionally allow people to share their sorrow or experience, period.  Showing genuine concern by asking follow-up questions is the next step. Since every subject possesses boomerang tendencies, we all do well to examine and manage others’ responses as well as our own. Listening attentively to another’s experience without responding with a matching story requires respect, maturity and patience.  Normal conversation is 50% listening and 50% talking but listening politely to storying moves listening to 75% and speaking to 25%.

The following examples will enable us to compare and then scrutinize our personal conversational habits for the possibility of self-centered boomerangs.

“When I visit with my cousin, I swear that she twists every subject to something political and what she supports,” Edna complained. “Her husband even took me aside once and apologized for his wife’s obsession and admitted that when he is her only listener, he goes for a smoke for a break.”

One gal brags about how she encourages everyone she meets especially the clerk at the cash register how she overcame a medical problem. She absolutely believes that’s her way of encouragement. It never occurs to her that the clerk is a captive audience.

Years ago, at one of our churches, anytime anyone would take a minute to listen to a lady who’d had many medical, financial and family problems, they would endure once again what they heard earlier. “She was like a broken record”, Jim used to say. Maybe she didn’t remember who had already heard her accounts but she never seemed to take a breath to give the listener an opportunity to comment.  Some people seem to receive pleasure from hearing their own voices which is self-centeredness.

Then, the cries of a friend who described normal banter at home. If I say, I am reading a very good book the response is, “I’m reading a good book, too.” Or, if I share, that I had lunch at the new Mr. Bill’s sandwich & Salad, mate says, “I ate at the steak house.”  If I announce that I bought shoes, all I hear is “I need shoes”. Why can’t he ever ask a follow-up question about my book or shoes before telling me about his, or ask about the sandwich place?  Everything I say always swivels back to him. Is that what you call narcissism? Am I expecting too much?

My response: I think it’s not purely narcissism but just a well-nurtured habit of self-centeredness.  We all are eager to share an experience, a quicker method or a new idea, are but are we sensitive to others’ needs? Learning to ask questions could soften the difficult dialogue. More about that later on.

When Ralph excitedly shared with his brother-in-law that he returned from a trip to Rome where he toured the Sistine Chapel, all he heard was, “When I went to Rome the last time, I visited the Vatican and even saw the Pope.”  “That was like ice-water over my head”, Ralph sighed.

One-upmanship is another conversational boomerang response which inhabits the ‘can you top this?’ list.  The deck you built sounds great but let me tell you about the one I just put in…..”  The old song, “Anything you can do I can do better”.  It’s amusing to listen to conversations in a doctor’s office when one says, I’ve had both knees done and the other person says, Well, I’ve had both hips replaced and a rotator cuff all done in the same year.” Extroverts seem to speak up more quickly before thinking. My mom used to say to us, “Think before you speak” and she had good reason since five of her six children were extroverted.

We know what we dislike about boomeranging dialogue of self-centeredness and one-upmanship but how can we deal kindly and helpfully with those who constantly win the booby prize and also learn to identify and avoid indulging in boomeranging addictions ourselves. I know of couples who check each other out or listen-up in group settings and send silent signals when one offends.

As we listen to others’ experiences, our minds are certain to circle back to dogs, books, meals, and trips. We might as well throw children, grandchildren, weddings, moves, jobs, close calls and gardens into the mix.   Since many of us enjoy sharing our exciting and often humorous happenings, making an agreement with ourselves to squelch our experience until the other person is satisfied with their sharing, is one of the kindest gifts we can bestow. (And when we may not even get a turn, give ourselves a pat.)

To pull this off, I say to myself, “Listen as though you have never traveled, put a pet down, read a book, etc. and be ready to ask the story teller a few questions to guarantee that you ARE indeed listening, not just being quiet, thereby gifting the speaker with questions.  I call them ‘hookers’ or ‘lures’:

I ran into a friend of yours at the sandwich shop.

Do you have time for hearing a neat idea I just read about?

You would have enjoyed what I ordered for lunch.

Where did you go for dinner?

I’d like to know what all you did today.

What have you been reading?

Thinking up questions does not come easily to everyone, but it’s a worthy skill to master just the same as learning to gather magic ‘I’ statements,

Some people talk about what they’ve purchased, built, seen, eaten because they’re hungry for approval (no pun intended).  Fifty percent of our nation—Feelers--are designed to need the 5 A’s: approval, affirmation, acceptance, attention, affection, and another A for allowance. And you’ll recall that the other 50% are Thinkers by design who give themselves approval but from others they prefer respect and trust.

I admire what brother Mac does in coaching himself to curtail any one-upmanship boomerangs. Every evening he sets aside time as he relaxes to review conversations that he’s had throughout his counseling sessions and scores himself: good, fair or bad, and if he senses any exchange that deserves acknowledgment, an apology or at least clarification, he makes a note to take care of it asap.

Conversing with families, friends and strangers is such an important part of our life that any time that we dedicate to refining polite and good habits in listening and responding ensures our world will be a little more satisfied, kinder and sweeter.

The prayer from James 3 helps me to adjust my attitude in placing others’ needs in front of mine.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.