You face the awkward dilemma in both informal helping conversations and formal counseling sessions: How can I engage my counselee who dominates each counseling conversation with nonstop talking?
You know the types of people. Maybe they give minute, unnecessary details about a recent incident. Perhaps they share the many specifics of their overly-introspective self-analysis. Or their minds simply flit from topic to topic, moving seamlessly from one subject to another, taking you (and talking you) down a host of tangential paths.
Reasons Counselees Talk Too Much
Why do some counselees talk incessantly? Some people might be lonely, lacking a close friend, a caring spouse, or a sociable roommate. You are the one person who listens in a loving way. Maybe they lack social skills, not knowing when it is appropriate to pause and let you interact. Social awkwardness marks many we counsel. Perhaps they are verbal processors, needing to think out loud to pull together their thoughts and make sense of their mental confusion.
Some counselees might be anxious about the session, uncomfortable with the silences that you as a thoughtful listener sometimes prefer. Maybe they fear what you might say to them. They maintain control of the conversation to avoid any responses from you that might challenge or unsettle them. Perhaps they are intensely concerned that you perfectly understand every detail of their situation. They worry that an omitted fact or missing nuance by them might leave you with the wrong impression of them or result in you giving them incomplete counsel.
In short, the reasons for over-talk can be as endless as the many words the person might utter.
How should we handle these situations? The temptation to slip into a passive listening mode feels nearly irresistible. In the face of continual talkers, we naturally move into autopilot—to appear interested outwardly but inwardly to merely endure their endless droning. We wait with boredom until the person takes a breath and lets us talk. “Here we go again,” we think, “another long rabbit trail to try to follow.” We quickly tune out.
The other option, often borne out of frustration or anger, can be even worse. We lose patience. “This has gone on along enough,” we conclude. So, when we can take it no longer, with our eye on the clock, we rudely interrupt: “Mary, let me jump in and say something.” In doing so we risk losing whatever caring relationship we might have cultivated.
A Better Approach
What is the better way to respond to the nonstop talker?
To use a metaphor, picture yourself sitting on the center grass infield of a racecar stadium. The nonstop talker is like a driver on the track circling his car around you at high speed. While you passively watch, he endlessly circles you and repeatedly laps you. What must you do? You must rise from your passive seat, approach the fast moving car, and jump into the passenger seat.
You metaphorically jump in by increasing your active listening. Resist your passive or frustrated inclinations and intentionally ramp up your reflective listening responses in visible and audible ways. You can do so bodily by leaning forward, intensifying your eye contact, and nodding your head more vigorously. You can do so orally with more frequent “uh-huh’s,” “umm’s,” “yes’s,” and “I-see’s.”
By demonstrating active listening you gain increased involvement and jump into your counselee’s car. Once in the car you can steer the conversation.
What might that look like? Consider some examples:
- “Wow, Mary, that sounds really hard (or sad or tough). Let me make sure I am hearing what you are saying.”
- “Yes, Mary, I think I understand, but let me make sure. What I hear you saying is. . . .”
- “Uh-huh, that makes sense, Mary. But let me ask you a question (or make an observation).”
Of course the need for patience and self-control is evident, as is the need to insert statements or questions that reflect biblical wisdom.
If Necessary, Interrupt—Politely!
If the above technique does not work, then at some point you will need to interrupt the person. Of course, you must be polite. But you also must be direct. You do this for the counselee’s sake, because of your love for the counselee. You wouldn’t want them to look back on the session the next day with regret and wonder why they talked so much and why you gave them no hope and no answers.
What might you say? Consider these examples:
- “Mary, it has been helpful for me to listen to you and to understand the details of your struggle. But I wonder if you might want to hear some of my thoughts about what you are sharing.”
- “Mary, you have shared a lot with me and it’s been valuable. But I would love the opportunity to make sure that I understand what you are saying and respond to you as your friend (or pastor or counselor).”
- “Mary, for me to best help you, I need to give you some Christ-centered perspectives on what you are sharing with me today. Would you mind if I summarize what I have heard you say and then share some of my thoughts?”
What will happen when you jump into the high speed car of your nonstop talking friends and bring them Christ-centered hope and counsel? You will often find that the nonstop talker will gradually give you more opportunities for fruitful two-way dialogue.
And that’s hundred times better than falling asleep on the raceway infield.
Join the Conversation
Why do some of your friends or counselees seem to dominate conversations? How have you tried to handle nonstop talkers in wise and compassionate ways?