No doubt you know people are brash and self-centered. These two negative traits combined will most likely cause you to either minimize contact with them, or begrudgingly accept these behavioral flaws and show grace–even though it is difficult.

But what about the person who is nice and even selfless in their actions, but self-centered as a communicator? Perhaps you have friends like this who are thoughtful, kind and generous. But for some strange reason, every time you leave a conversation with them, you are scratching your head, wondering why you feel so depleted rather than energized. Maybe you shrug it off as your imagination. Maybe you remind yourself of how nice and thoughtful they are. Or maybe you convince yourself that they really aren’t self-centered; they simply need a listening ear. And there are seasons in life when they do. However, what happens when you are that listening ear season after season and year after year?

Let’s look at the difference between what is selfish and what is self-centered. Selfishness means lacking consideration for others, and/or is concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure. In contrast, self-centeredness means being preoccupied with oneself and one’s affairs. Consider a person who invites you to lunch. They offer to pick you up, they are polite to the servers, they are friendly and fun, and they insist on picking up the tab. Overall niceness. Yet when you reflect on your conversation, you realized that there was none. There was no dialogue; rather, you were the recipient of a monologue. And when they paused long enough to take a breath, perhaps you volunteered some information about what is going on in your life, hoping to start an actual conversation. Instead, you received a nod, smile or brief comment, and then quickly the verbal spotlight swung back on them. According to Dr. Margaret Rutherford, who specializes in self-development and relationships, “A self-centered person grabs the focus. And you’re left wondering why you even bothered to talk to them in the first place. Or somehow you absorb a weird kind of shame for sharing, as if your struggles or your joys don’t matter.”

It is always easy to point the finger, but how do you recognize when you are guilty of self-centered communication? Do you unknowingly take advantage of those quieter, reserved friends who are great listeners, and as a result, continually monopolize your time together without even realizing it?

Here are some self-reflective questions to consider:

  • Once you have verbally shared and then ask your friend how they are doing or what’s been going on in their life, do you keep the focus on them by asking deeper questions to help draw them out?
  • When a friend shares something with you, do you continue to respond with curiosity, or do you look for ways to share a similar experience from your own life? This is an easy trap–read about the pitfalls here: Beware Of This Conversation Trap
  • When you leave conversations, do you ask yourself how much you learned about the other person as compared to how much information you shared about yourself?

If you find yourself on the recipient side of self-centered communicators, meaning that you are the reserved person who grows weary of always being the listener, keep the following in mind:

  • Some extroverts are uncomfortable with silence, so if you don’t speak up, they will continue talking just to keep the interaction going. Years ago I approached interactions thinking, “I’m not going to volunteer anything about myself unless I am asked.” But this wasn’t fair to the other person. Some well-meaning people really do want to know about us; they just don’t think to ask questions.
  • When a person asks a question about you, beware of giving short and vague answers. “I’m fine” or “no, there is nothing new” are not answers that are going to inspire curiosity about you. Your friends may feel it is intrusive to probe further. Don’t make people have to drag information out of you.

Both persons shoulder the responsibility of having an interaction that results in meaningful dialogue. If you have a natural bent towards talking too much about yourself, be intentional about shifting the spotlight on the other person by asking clarifying questions. On the flip side, if you are the one frustrated with being the only listener in your interactions, be intentional about revealing something about yourself rather than waiting to be asked. And if they continue to ramble on about themselves, you may want to evaluate how much time and energy you want to invest in the relationship. As Chip and Dan Heath, authors of The Power Of Moments, write: “A relationship in which one party is oblivious to the most profound moments in the life of the other is no relationship at all.”