If You Want People to Listen to You, Stop Talking

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You know the type: the type of person I call a fire hose. This is the person who, as soon as he thinks he has your ear, lets loose a flood of words without regard to the give and take that is found in normal conversation.

If you’re a political activist, you might have a lot to say. You might be uncommonly well-informed; but, if you’re a fire hose, you will not change the mind of anyone. Instead, if people do not flee at the sight of you, they will shut down and tune out; they’ll miss the finer points of what you’re trying to say and replace your sound, reasoned argument with, “Blah.. blah…blah…blah…blah….”

If you’re a political activist and let people know you’re interested in public affairs, you’ll attract a lot of fire hoses, if you’re not one, yourself. They’ll point their nozzles at you and gush. You know what it’s like to drink from a fire hose. You can’t do it.

Why do people become fire hoses? Why do they talk well beyond anyone’s capacity to listen? I think there are three reasons: a belief in venting; a desire to hold the floor; and a need to overcome oppression.

Venting
I get a lot of fire hoses in my counseling practice because people often mistake venting for healing. They think it’s what they’re supposed to do when they see a shrink. Psychotherapy may be the only profession where the professional is hired for his or her expertise in human affairs and is then often expected to not share it. Sometimes when I see a couple for marriage counseling, one or both of the partners is a fire hose because they heard it was important to get things off their chest. They’re afraid they’re going to blow up if they hold a thought too long.

Freud gets quoted a lot by people who believe in venting. They say that he said people repress a lot of anger, which causes all kinds of bad things to happen. It’s better to release that pressure by venting, they say, than to let it back up and cause anxiety, resentments, paralysis, and depression.

With all the upsetting things we hear in the news these days, there’s a whole lot of venting going on as people get all worked up by the latest thing Trump, or the Democrats, or the Russians, or the Republicans are doing or failed to do. Even if venting actually worked and the internal pressure was released, what you get is something like this: A Trump resister blows off steam, but a Trump supporter hears her. He blows off steam and she hears him; so, now she needs to vent again. The net result is no one gets anywhere. There’s no end to all this venting; and plenty of work for us shrinks.

It should be remembered that Freud saw a lot of corseted and muted Victorian women. They really needed a chance to vent and benefited a lot by doing so. This is seldom the case today. When I see someone in my office who has a hard time speaking up, I want them to vent, too. But there aren’t many like that. Basically, I have a rule of thumb: If you can’t vent, then I want you to; if you like venting, then I’m shutting it down.

You see, once you pass a certain point, venting does not promote change. Once you’ve get the basic information across, it may actually inhibit adjustment if the thing that is keeping you locked up in a dysfunctional pattern is the way you look at things. Venting doesn’t permit anyone else to show you another way out.

Holding the floor
If you’re around a lot of fire hoses, you might have found that the only way to protect yourself from the verbal onslaught is to be a fire hose, yourself. You mount a filibuster and drench them so they can’t turn the hose on you.

First, you tell them what you’re going to tell them, then you tell them, then you tell them what you just told them. You pile on subordinate clauses that no one can disentangle; extend a sentence ad infinitum. You’ve learned to take a breath in mid-sentence so no one can break in when you finally do reach a period. You’ve learned not to look at people when you talk, so they can’t signal you that they’re ready to reply.

By employing these means, you, too, can become a fire hose; but there’s only one problem. Whatever you were trying to say, you may say it, but you might just as well stayed silent for all the impact it has on others.

Overcoming oppression
Many fire hoses belong to an oppressed minority of one kind or another, misrepresented and misunderstood. The fire hose attempts to tell his story his way for once, as soon as they find someone who said they would listen. That’s fine until the listener stops listening, like when she has a question or is unable to clarify a missed point because the speaker is not paying attention when the listener has that lost look on her face. Eventually, it all catches up and the fact that the listener has not been following gets revealed. Then the chronically-oppressed-minority fire hose goes on feeling misrepresented and misunderstood.


If you are willing to admit that you are a fire hose, then I have a brief word of advice to you. Less is more.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a fire hose, then you can try my patented method for shutting it off. Start talking. Don’t talk about what you want to say; no one is listening. Instead, summarize whatever you’re hearing the fire hose say, as best you can, as fast as you can keep up. Don’t wait for the fire hose to stop talking, just add your paraphrase on top of his words. Eventually, the fire hose will notice that someone else is saying something, too. He’ll listen and may find that you understand what he is trying to say. Maybe then he can stop.

You see, the fire hose wants something we all want. He wants to be understood. Even if you cannot agree, you can offer understanding, despite this imperfect method he has of expressing himself.

Read part I, A Marriage Counselor Takes on Politics
Part II, The Perverse Power of the Non-Engaged
Part III, Building Walls
Part IV, Tolerant of the Intolerant, Outraged by the Outrageous