When was the last time this happened: you are at a wedding reception, run into someone you know and innocently ask, “How is it going?” You are hoping for a couple of general statements then a return-serve of, “So, how about you?” But that’s not what you get. You run into a buzz saw and spend the next 10, 20, 30 minutes listening to them tell you in minute detail how they are doing. It could be about something they are really excited about like a promotion, a new house or how little Junior just broke the record for most goals scored in a soccer season…on his 3rd grade team. Now you are happy for your friend…for the first minute or two. But a feeling of dread begins to build as you sense you are on a one-way street and a dump truck is headed your way. Or it could be, as you take a bite of a crustless finger sandwich, that your friend begins to describe how large the growth was they just had removed from between their toes. Before you can protest, they whip out their phone which is loaded with progressive pictures chronicling the adventure. As you try to throttle back your gag reflex, they begin to demonstrate their physical therapy exercises on the edge of the dance floor.
We have all had varying degrees of both of these experiences where we run into the Me-Monster. This is that person who wants to do all the talking when it comes to casual conversation and is lurking at parties, beside you on planes and next to you in the stands while you try to watch your kid play in a ballgame. At work the Me-Monster prowls the halls, loiters in the kitchen and peers over the top of your cubicle. They have always been amongst us but in recent years there seems to have been a viral outbreak everywhere we turn. I have been wondering why it seems to be worse than ever and have come up with a couple of ideas. In our world of constant availability via texts and emails, extroverted and outgoing (not the same thing) people seem to be starved for face-to-face interaction. And when they get it, the Me-Monster rears its ugly head and takes over. Also, anxiety seems to be the go-to diagnosis these days for anyone feeling challenged so insecurity and self-worth issues can increase the desire to be significant while lessening self-awareness and the ability to read the recipient’s body language. That’s why Me-Monsters will follow you into the parking lot or even into the bathroom to bestow their insight upon you. I remember when the stall was a safe place.
What can we do to survive these people who are constantly looking for an audience? In a public setting we can try to politely excuse ourselves for a variety of reasons like being late for another engagement. Or you can make it a game by trying to jump in whenever the Me-Monster takes a breath with your own Me-Monster story. Then it becomes a contest to see who can talk the longest without breathing.
More diplomatically, you could hold your hand up and say that you have just a couple minutes more but want to hear how this turns out so ask for a wrap-up. If it is a good friend or a direct report you could take the direct approach and kindly let them know that this is an issue for them. It will be uncomfortable initially but in the long run it may be the kindest thing anyone has ever said to them. For many, self-awareness is a challenge and that’s why feedback can be extremely beneficial. If the Me-Monster is a coworker, you can try to avoid them as much as possible around the office or ask to be moved to a quieter location so that you can be more productive. When approaching a meeting with some long-winded folks I have asked for brief summaries in writing ahead of time so that the meeting can be productively spent making progress more quickly.
We all know people like this…but what if we are the Me-Monster? This is challenging to own even for the most self-aware person so how about considering if this comes out in you just occasionally? Here is a test. Count how many times you use the words “I” and “me” when you communicate. This is easiest to track by reviewing the last few emails you have sent. You might be shocked by how many there are. By the way, this is a great final review before sending any correspondence. Just count how many personal references are there then go back and reword the sentences to eliminate as many as possible before sending. Reducing them to less than one every 5 lines is a great place to start. Just so you know, there are 3 in this article…so far.
For help with how you communicate verbally in meetings and in casual conversation get some feedback from those who work closely with you as well as from those in your personal life. Some people have the misconception that asking for feedback makes them appear weak. It is just the opposite. Being secure enough to express that you want to continue to grow no matter what age or stage you are in is inspiring. Most people will respect that and not take a cheap shot when given the chance. I prefer a question like, “How can I better communicate with you as your ___________ (boss, team member, spouse, friend)?” Then drill down even more by inquiring if you need to ask more questions, talk less or generally take more interest in others.
With this valuable information from both your professional and personal worlds you can then consider changes that need to be made to be more effective. Two keys to long term success are having reminders to trigger the change and specific dates for check-ups with your people to see if you are making progress. The best reminders I use in coaching are acronyms. These are short words that help you remember to make the change. Each letter stands for what you are trying to do. For example, a salesman I worked with used GRASP as his acronym which stood for Get Real And Stay Positive. This came in handy when dealing with lots of rejection. Another client used WAIT which stood for What Am I Thinking? It helped her remember to push through the fear of what others are thinking and do the hard thing. To combat the Me-Monster you could use ASK which has significant meaning in itself. It could stand for Alternate Speaking Kindly. Make this something that is meaningful for you and put it on a sticky note beside your phone or on whatever you take into meetings. If you are about to go into a social setting where this is a problem, consider setting a vibrate alarm on your phone as a reminder to ASK several times during the engagement. Then put a reminder in your calendar next month to circle back to ask if progress is being noticed by those around you.
There are lots of other things you can do to battle the Me-Monster like asking more questions, waiting to the end of the meeting to give your opinion, reflecting back what you just heard for clarification and most dramatic, just be silent and listen. The point is to regularly consider how you are coming across and take steps to show more interest in others. At parties, my wife and I try to discover the interests of others and discuss them with each other on the way home. In addition to honoring the other person, it has provided some ideas for new interests for us to discover as well. It helps if you are curious.
The Me-Monster is lurking but can be successfully dealt with when we are prepared. We just need to be ready to handle it when it pops up in others and in ourselves.