Four people who will waste your energy in conversations

Posted on May 21, 2010


In my last post, I discussed one of the most important relationship tools anyone can use to deepen their relationship with someone they love-empathetic listening. Listening and communicating with empathy can be transformative. But let’s face it-there are some people with whom this communication tool will be a waste of your time.


Because some people aren’t really concerned with having an actual conversation with you. They are concerned only with what they have to say.

Most of us walk away from conversations like this feeling drained. Yes, empathy can transform even the most difficult relationships but it is a gift that not everyone deserves. Look at the descriptions of the people below-they are not worth the emotional energy that empathetic listening takes. Being forewarned will help you move on and save your energy for those for whom it is worth.

1. The Martyr

You know who I’m talking about. There’s one in every family and in every workplace. This is the person who insists on having Thanksgiving at her house and then complains about all of the time she had to spend cooking the food. This is the colleague or friend who plans a celebration in your honor and then complains about all of the money he spent on it.

These people LOVE your sympathy and your attention. Try and give them empathy and they will continue to tell you of the tragedies they’ve endured and will find you next time they have a sob story.

Way to Deal: Thank them for all of their hard work. Once. Then move on.

2. The Self-Centered Conversationalist

This is the person who expects you to sit on the edge of your chair while he/she tells his/her story. When you start to talk, however, her eyes glaze over, he has to repeatedly check his text messages or she suddenly remembers some one more important she has to speak with. Continue to waste your empathy on this kind of person and you’ll continue to walk away from conversations feeling used.

Way to Deal: Don’t get sucked into these conversations. When the warning signs appear, just move on.

3. The Blabbermouth

This person usually doesn’t mean any harm. It’s just they are so into the story they have to tell they forget to let you have a word in edgewise. You may try to say something empathetic but you won’t really get an opportunity. Because, well, this person believes that their story is so important that they barely take the time to breathe much less let you open your mouth. It’s best not to set your expectations too high if you are going to engage in a conversation with a blabbermouth. For them, talking is a hobby.

Way to Deal: Listen, if you feel like it. Or zone out. The blabbermouth won’t know the difference anyway. You can also concoct a really good reason to leave the conversation.

4. The person who tells the same story over and over again*

After a tragedy, many of us need to tell our stories to empathetic listeners. We may have to tell the same story several times before we can release it or make some sense of it. This is normal. (In fact, a new form of therapy encouraging people to do just this is developing to help people suffering from PTSD. You can read an article about this here.)

But I am not talking about people who are recovering from tragedy. I’m talking about people who, for whatever reason, have to tell you the same story a billion times. Go ahead and offer some empathy the first few times around. But if it’s the tenth time you’re heard the same story, you don’t have to listen or offer empathy. It will be a waste of your time.

Sometimes people repeat their stories because they are socially awkward and want to say something. They figure anything is better than nothing. Sometimes a person will tell the same stories over and over because they are reminiscing or stuck in the past. And sometimes people tell the same stories because they are avoiding what they really need to do, which is take some action (in the world of coaching, we call this one “story fondling”).

Whatever the reason, your empathy is not usually what they need.

Way to Deal: Figure out what the person really needs in the conversation and speak accordingly.

This will vary from person to person, but in general, the socially inept friend may like it if you keep asking her specific questions about herself or something in her life, so she feels more comfortable in conversations. The grandpa who tells you for the millionth time about his army days may really desire appreciation and acknowledgment for what he has accomplished (and perhaps would benefit from some empathy about his fear about the present). The friend who calls you once again to complain about her ex really wants some guidance about what to do next.

Remember, although empathy is powerful, it won’t work with everyone.

*Repeating stories also happens in people with abnormal brain function, such as those with autism and Alzheimer’s disease.