I had known Martha and Brian for several months at the time I was speaking to both of them on Skype. Martha had launched into a monologue about Brian’s crimes.
After I raised my hand for several seconds, Martha finally stopped talking. I turned to Brian and asked, “Do you sometimes feel like Martha uses too many words?”
A look of indescribable relief came over Brian’s face, strongly communicating, “I can’t believe it. Somebody other than me finally understands what it’s been like to be machine gunned with words for the past twenty years? Is this possible, or am I dreaming?”
I helped Martha understand that she didn’t intentionally hurt her partner with too many words. All her life, nobody had ever really listened to her, so she’d compensated by talking MORE, hoping that if she generated an avalanche of words, somebody would hear at least a fraction. But her efforts had caused an effect quite the opposite of what she intended. When faced with her avalanche, Brian and others simply tuned her out, hearing nothing she said.
When we use a lot of words in making a request, or in making a point, we tend to be doing one or more of the following:
- We’re proving that we’re right. The reasoning—mostly unconscious—tends to go like this: If ten words communicates my opinion, then a hundred words surely must communicate it better—and proves in addition that I must be right. Who could refute such a mountain of words?
- We’re convincing other people to believe us. This is only slightly different from #1, but if we can prove we’re right to the point that someone else is persuaded to change their opinion, then we must be even more right. What a bonus.
- We’re trying to force people to comply with our wishes. In making a request, more words serve to prove that our “request” must be right, bolster the urgency of our request, and create an almost tangible pressure on people to comply—if only to get us to shut up.
- We’re trying to restrain people from resisting us. We use words almost like ropes, preventing our “opponent” from refusing our reasoning or our request.
- We feel powerful and self-righteous. While we’re droning on, we command the position of Speaker and assign everyone else to listen to our brilliant reasoning.
- We’re indicating—however unconsciously—that the person we’re talking to is too stupid to understand simpler reasoning or too uncaring to agree to a simple request.
Why does all this matter? Because it turns out that people generally don’t like it when we overwhelm them, sell them, force them to comply, restrain them, and call them stupid. Once we know all these effects of too many words, we can begin to make wiser choices about how we speak, instead of reflexively doing what we’ve learned to do from a lifetime of being ignored and in pain.
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