I had a friend once who was incapable of hearing any story without telling a story about herself. If something romantic happened to you, something even more romantic had happened to her. If you got in a fight with someone, she had gotten into a bigger fight. It was really obnoxious, and eventually I completely lost interest in spending time with her and we drifted apart. When I think about it today, though, I realize that almost all of us behave that way sometimes.
Carlson calls this behavior “being the hero of every story.” Instead of truly listening to the other person’s story, you shift to focus to a related story about yourself. The result is that the other person feels that their story was not interesting enough or that you are competing with them.
The tricky thing about avoiding this behavior is that sharing about yourself is one of the ways that people become close. One person tells a story, and the other person tells a slightly more vulnerable story, which leads to a more vulnerable story from the first person. The key, then, is probably not to avoid stories about yourself entirely, but to listen carefully to their story and respond to it thoroughly before launching into yours, leave your story out if it doesn’t really add to the conversation, and to tie your story to theirs so the focus stays on them.
For example, let’s say a friend is telling you about how her partner didn’t invite her to an event he was going to. You might respond to telling her about a time your partner did the same thing, agree that it is really a bummer when that happens, then ask how she is going to deal with the situation. This allows you to share of yourself within the conversation, which will encourage her to feel comfortable sharing freely, but you are still keeping the focus on her and her situation.
As important as this strategy is with friends, it is possibly even more important with our partners. It’s easy to slide into a competitive, self-centered way of talking with our partners without even realizing it, and that is no good for relationships. So before you share your own story in reaction to something your partner tells you, stop and ask yourself whether you are telling the story because it will add to the discussion of their situation or just because you think your story is more interesting. The more you can stay focused on your partner during your conversations, the more interested your partner will be in sharing with you in the future.