The nonstop talker: You’ve met him or her in informal conversations and while counseling. So should you interrupt then? Is so, how? Guest writer Dr. Robert Jones of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary tackles this awkward dilemma in his article which first appeared here on The Biblical Counseling Coalition website and is used with permission.
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 with the nonstop talker?
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 nonstop talker. 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 a nonstop talker in wise and compassionate ways?
I was such a talker.
Although my counselors could see my fears, angers, prides and other issues (and successfully convey some to me, despite my talking), the final piece that God placed in my life was correct medication. Added to biblical teaching, my doctor-prescribed & doctor-measured-dose of appropriate medicine brought a breakthrough in my talking AND in the bouncing-balls-thoughts that raged through my head all the time, esp. when I wanted to talk).
I started being able to observe my thoughts for the first time (my thoughts now held within the limits of medicated state) and recognize what was fearful, what was despairing, what was prideful and so on. My responses or need to ‘talk it out’ also died because I was no longer helplessly dependent on someone else bringing my thoughts together. I also learnt to be content when God cut me away from others & others cut away from me – because these became times when God showed me I didn’t need others’ support as much as I thought I did + others were actually getting hurt with my pressing my talk/thoughts onto them.
I’ve been a hesitant receiver of medicines for the greater part of my life. But through this season I learnt to stop strong proclamations that arise out of wrong influences/false thinking. At the end of the day the issue is not about pitching Medications against God so we can prove that “God is stronger”, but it’s about receiving humbly the care we need, which a loving & disciplining Father is providing through the right people & right resources. The uptight “proving God’s enough” mindset needs to fall – under the realization that proving God is the work done by HIS Word, the Bible, and the way is applying courageously what God’s teaching me. God’s WORD proves Him right as the effects of obeying His Word flow out of my life.
To those ministering to incessant talkers I would gently suggest considering/praying about looking into possible learning disabilities (which may indicate a greater need for mental support, like medication or a plan for dramatically reducing distractions, rather than just verbal teaching of the Truth. Or else, like it’d been for me, it’d be no different for them than trying to learn their math or science earlier in life. The only difference would be trying to understand and learn verses/biblical truth under the same pressure and frustration). God grows care-givers also into patience & teaching as He provides situational answers one by one.
“preach the word. be ready in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke and exhort with COMPLETE patience and teaching”
God bless you!
My thoughts in ONE word = WOW! Thank YOU so much for sharing this. You have no idea how well this describes myself as I interact with, as well as help my employer & her family take care of a special needs client full-time. ♥️ Also, what a special blessing of both WISDOM & UNDERSTANDING through this post on behalf of my husband & of course myself, as still newly weds, as we come upon our 4th Wedding Anniversary on March 5th, 2020 with our communication, as we continue to work through our stresses, fears, as well as BEST knowing how to LOVE each other THROUGH it all. Thank you for encouraging us as we continue to trust OUR God through our daily struggles throughout our marriage & life as a whole. Thanks again! ♥️
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I haven’t seen any responses on “pride.” I lead a Bible study which has grown. It has been a wonderful experience, until, this elderly man joined our group. He “used” to be a teacher and I truly believe, by some of his responses that he would like to be the teacher of my class.
He talks incessantly. I have had three people come to me and complain about him. I know that I MUST take more control of him. The only thing I have been able to think of is taking him aside, after everyone else is gone and saying to him, “your comments and explanations are very good, have you thought about having your own Bible study?” I just can’t seem to come up with something to say, except that. He has seriously gotten on my last nerve. I do want him at my Bible study, however, he needs to recognize, it is NOT his Bible study.