How to Break or Change a Conversation Habit

“The strange thing about habits is that because we perform them unconsciously, we aren’t always aware exactly what they are.”

~ Jeremy Dean

How to Break or Change a Conversation Habit

By Loren Ekroth, Ph.D.

Do you have a conversation habit you want to eliminate? Perhaps you’ve been told about a habit that damages the flow of conversation, such as:

  1. Interrupting. Butting in before your partner has completed her thought. Usually interrupters do this because they’re impatient and afraid they won’t get their thoughts expressed.
  2. Blabbermouthing. Talking too much, way out of balance. Going on and on without giving the other(s) their turn. We all know people who do this. (If you yourself talk too much, say less. Talk in paragraphs, not chapters.)
  3. Contradicting. “Yes-butting” is one of the ultimate conversation-blockers. Although appropriate in structured debate, direct disagreement is rarely helpful in conversation, which is best when mutual and collaborative.
  4. Take-aways and me-toos. When a talker begins a topic, you grab it and start a me-centered monologue. He says, “I saw Les Miserables last weekend . . .” and you say “Oh? I saw Argo . . .” and begin to describe your experience.
  5. Poor listening, such as multi-tasking when receiving talk, or mentally rehearsing what you plan to say next, or not looking at the person talking.

 Here are suggestions for changing unwanted habits:

1. Suppression doesn’t work. Trying just to stop yourself from doing what you’ve done automatically and unconsciously thousands of times is a fool’s errand.

2. Instead, substitute a new behavior to replace (or reduce the power of) an unwanted behavior. Example, instead of rehearsing what you’re planning to say, focus on the person talking by asking questions.

“Think of the bad habit you want to change like a river that’s been following the same course for a long time. Now you want to stop it suddenly. You can’t just dam the river because the water will rise up and break through. Instead, you have to encourage the river to take a different course. In order to break the old habit, the attempt needs to be paired with making a new habit.”

–Jeremy Dean, “Making Habits, Breaking Habits,” (2012)

It’s easier to substitute a new habit than to extinguish an old one. An example: Chewing gum has proven to help stop smoking (gum in the mouth instead of a cigarette or pipe.)

If the substitute habit has a good pay-off for your effort (such as improving your relationships), reminding yourself of the pay-off can motivate you to persevere.

3.Use a tool as a reminder. Example: Talk too much? Use a 3-minute sand timer as a measure. Before the sand runs out, stop talking. Another tool: Wear your watch on the other wrist as a reminder you’re trying something different.

4. “Buddy up” with a friend who agrees to signal you when your unwanted habit appears. Best if you both act as coaches to each other when you’re both working on making a specific change. Example: Fellow members in Toastmasters Clubs help one another eliminate “filled pauses” (ahs and umms) for public speaking by having one member keep and report a count.

5. Change your physical context. If you meet to talk in a library or church, you’ll usually talk more slowly, thoughtfully, and softly. When you change your social context and talk with persons who model the behavior you desire, you’re less likely to continue your bad habits.

To re-cap:

  1. Work on one habit at a time.
  2. Don’t suppress, substitute.
  3. Make use of tools. 
  4. Friends can coach one another.

Finally, even one small change can have big, positive effects. A salesperson who substitutes genuine inquiry for telling increases commissions. A husband who replaces scattered attention with patient listening rescues a marriage. An employee who offers quality questions instead of interrupting at meetings keeps her job.

When you change, your world changes.

From “Better Conversations” newsletter by Loren Ekroth.  Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2013. All Rights reserved. Dr.  Ekroth is creator of information products to improve conversation, such as “Small Talk Success Tips” and a free newsletter at www.ConversationMatters.com

Coaching Call To Action

What one communication habit do you want to change?  What will you substitute instead?  What tool will you use?  Share with us below. 

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