Conversation Clutter–Being Mindful of What We Say

February 17, 2011

I was saying goodbye to my friend—let’s call her Molly—after a congenial lunch.  Before parting I casually mentioned an encounter between a friend of hers and a friend of mine—an encounter where I was not present.  There was a question of follow-up. 

I suggested her friend hadn’t followed up with my friend.  Did I know this for sure?  Absolutely not!  In a matter of seconds and in ignorance I maligned Molly’s friend and changed the tenor of our conversation.  Molly countered me, asserting her friend would never not follow up; it wasn’t like her.  When we parted, an uncomfortable feeling infiltrated my gut.

When we’re not mindful of what we say, our message can turn sloppy and inaccurate.  Not only that.  It affects both the listener and the speaker in ways we are unaware.  In the above example, I was careless.  I made an assumption I should never have made.  The harmony we enjoyed during lunch was now scrambled—at least for me. 

The Need to Feel Secure

Although each situation is different, deeper issues lie under these conversation blunders.  If we are conscious, we can pinpoint a blunder and then decipher why we let it happen.  Being conscious, of course, is tricky.  It means paying attention to our feelings.  I felt unsettled after my final exchange with Molly.  I knew I had said something that disturbed the harmony I so enjoyed during our lunch. 

When I thought about it more, I realized I was trying to impress Molly.  I knew a bit of information perhaps she didn’t, so I felt compelled to share it, inaccurate as it was.  Something got triggered in me to tell this story—something that would make me appear to be in the “know.”  What appears to be careless banter can have indelible, negative consequences. 

Weeks later I reminded Molly of the exchange.  Fortunately she had forgotten all about it even though, I believe, it’s been recorded in the recesses of her subconscious.  No negative consequences occurred at least to her knowledge.  I apologized anyway and felt better for it.

Thoughtless Outbursts

All this has got me paying closer attention to conversation blunders in general.  I’ve witnessed a couple lately where I among others was on the receiving end.  In both cases, these individuals ambushed their audience.  Their words lashed out of their mouth.  It seemed as if something deep within each person could no longer contain itself.  It had to be heard.  It didn’t matter whether it hurt or offended the listener(s).  It had to be spoken. 

Was their intent to upset the listener(s)?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  I know both individuals; they care deeply how others view them.  They prefer others’ opinion of them to be favorable. 

From my perspective, these unexpected outbursts, mine included, reflect a deep need to feel secure and undergird personal power.  It seems to me if an insecurity around a certain issue remains unaddressed, or more precisely—suppressed, then it’s quite capable of showing up in a most ugly and untimely way.  Psychologists call it the inner child.  Imagine trying to keep your kid quiet.  The more you shush him, the more urgent it is for him to be heard.  After a while he has a temper tantrum.  And so it is with these thoughtless outbursts, a form of conversation clutter. 

When on the receiving end of these outbursts, I allow myself to be hurt or get angry.  Caught off-guard I am stunned by what happened and afraid to voice my instant reaction.  Another part of me wants to blurt the truth but usually with the intensity of the initial outburst.   What usually happens is that I leave the encounter stewing–not saying much.  That stewing turns into resentment, which stays with me for as long as I permit—weeks, months or years.   

Too Much Talk

“A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” 

This is how New York Times staff writer Neil Genzlinger opens his article “The Problem with Memoirs” (January 28, 2011).  Even though his focus is on memoirs and the written word, I salute his call to action, for it applies to oral conversation, too!

I have a friend whom I have the urge to call from time to time but rarely do.  I am reluctant because the conversation always lasts too long, and my friend does most of the talking.  I can’t get a word in edgewise, and sometimes she is so engrossed in her story, she talks over me.  Her conversation is filled with a multitude of small details, which she believes are worthy of sharing, but to be honest, they aren’t.  

At some point during the conversation I get frantic seeing the time tick by.  I stop listening to her and start listening for an appropriate moment when I can insert, “I’d better be going now.  I have another commitment.”  When I finally get the guts to end the conversation, I leave feeling frustrated and angry that I didn’t curtail it sooner. 

If I were more assertive, I would inform her upfront that I have only so much time.  I don’t need to know the small details, and, if I do, I can ask.  Cut to the chase, please, and cut the conversation clutter!

Do Your Audience Analysis

This example brings up a critical piece of advice I would give my clients when I was a public speaking consultant, “Always do your audience analysis.”  I advised them to analyze their audience before they developed their talk.  This kind of analysis applies to conversation, too. 

Asking ourselves the following questions would be a good idea:  Who am I talking to?  What is my relationship with her?  What does this person need to know?  What’s appropriate and interesting to share?  I suspect some of us do it subconsciously, but many of us don’t do it at all.   

Conversing with Care

Whether we or the person we are conversing with talks too much or is prone to thoughtless outbursts, it’s advisable to raise our awareness of the clutter in our conversations.  Consider asking yourself if there is anything you can do in the moment.  You have options, like ending the conversation, tabling the topic or offering to explore it in depth at another time. 

If we can be more mindful of the clutter we bring to our conversations, we can stop ourselves before we say it.  If we pay attention to how we feel during a conversation, we have a better chance to speak our truth in the moment and move on.  Listening with care, we can better equip ourselves to respond with compassion rather than outrage to any form of conversation clutter.

Bev Hitchins © 2011

2 Responses to “Conversation Clutter–Being Mindful of What We Say”

  1. Maggie Says:

    Bev, Love the blog!!! Keep up the writing!!!
    See you soon!
    Blessings, Maggie

  2. This is so true Bev. Thanks as always for your insights.

    It is always more comfortable to go through the day witout a foot in our mouth!!


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