I have a dear male friend. We are romantically involved in a long-distance relationship across different time zones. Our main means of communication are texting and phone, or video talking. We usually talk one to two hours a day—late at night for him, and after work for me. However, our conversations often turn into monologues because my dear friend likes to talk. A lot! While he talks about interesting things, he has a tendency to give multiple examples to illustrate what he means or to rephrase his ideas even though I understood what he meant the first time. I often lose interest in the conversation. I’m also frustrated because it feels like a waste of time when he elaborates on the same thing over and over again. I have given him gentle cues a number of times, but the other day I snapped. How do I deal with it gently and effectively?
Dear Repeatedly Repetitive,
You need to make a decision. Your recent outburst is evidence you haven’t made one.
You’ve got only two ultimate options, and you’re trying to invent a third. You’re trying to make “tolerance” an option. To me, tolerance means “putting up with.” It means holding judgments in your mind but trying to pretend you aren’t. It is a thin veil that dissipates when you’re tired or when his behavior comes in a concentrated dose that exceeds your acting abilities. Tolerance is an attempt to manufacture a middle ground between the two legitimate ways of approaching others.
In my mind, there are two healthy ways of relating to imperfect people.
Option 1: Accept him as he is. This means true acceptance. It means realizing he, like everyone, is a mixed bag of attributes, some of which you cherish and some of which you don’t. But when you decided to get involved with him you chose the whole package. It’s disingenuous to act as though you want a relationship with someone then reveal later that it was contingent on them becoming someone they aren’t. Acceptance means that you surrender any agenda of changing him and come to see his foibles as charming idiosyncrasies rather than unbearable irritants.
Option 2: Influence him. If you want to ask him to change something in an ethical way, you must abide by three principles:
- Be honest. Don’t try to change him through subterfuge. This turns him into a project, not a person. And it impedes true intimacy by substituting manipulation for authenticity. There’s nothing wrong with wishing he handles something differently. We’ve all got weaknesses. As evidence of that, re-read your question to me. Ironically, you made reference to him repeating himself twice. Three times if you add the reference to paraphrase. I sympathize with you because I am a covert communication critic in conversations at times as well. When I allow myself to slide into entitlement, I can go mad when someone takes 14 minutes to finish a point I understood after 11 seconds. With all that said, if you think asking him to change is preferable to working on patience and generosity, have at it. But be up front.
- Make failure an option. Don’t come into the conversation expecting him to change. Prepare yourself for the possibility that this may be part of his cognitive style. Or it may be something he doesn’t care to make a priority. If you come in with expectations, you’ll be putting conditions on your affection.
- Start with curiosity. Start the conversation with something like this: “I’m curious about something. Frequently when we’re talking, you’ll elaborate on a point three or more times. I notice it happening often enough that I started wondering about it. Please know that I love our conversations. Talking with you is a highlight of my day. However, there are times I check out. And I’ve realized I am being dishonest when I do that. I’m pretending rather than being real. That’s not what I want with you. So I’m wondering if I’m giving you signals that I don’t understand something. Or maybe that I’ve checked out so you are restating things for emphasis. If on the other hand, this is just how you sort through your thoughts, I don’t want you feel like you need to do it any differently. This is my issue, not yours. I struggle with impatience and that’s my stuff. But if there is something in this dynamic that I am part of, I want to find out. Do you notice this as well?”
As you read my suggested approach, you might feel a tightness in your chest. If so, that’s a good tightness. It’s called vulnerability. It’s what the risk of honesty feels like. I have come to believe two things:
- The measure of my soul is my capacity to love imperfect people. People just like me. Relationships are the soul-stretching calisthenics of life.
- All lasting happiness in life is a function of our capacity for truth, love, and connection. You can only connect with others if you are willing to be transparent with them. Real love doesn’t compromise truth. And the depth of our connection with others can never be greater than our emotional honesty.
I hope some of what I shared helps you find a way to an even richer relationship with this imperfect man.
With every best wish,
The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations