We have all seen it. A conversation is moving along just fine, and suddenly someone inserts themselves and their experience into the conversation, awkwardly and seemingly without sense. The conversation is now revolving around that person, their experiences, and the previous trajectory has been abandoned for this new path.
An example: two friends are having a conversation. A third comes up and joins the conversation. The two original people are talking about a work issue that affects both of them. That third person inserts their own example from their own work that only affects the third person, and proceeds to continue the conversation on their own path and agenda, not acknowledging the conversation that was in place prior to their arrival. They have “centered” it on themselves.
This term isn’t new: it’s often used in conversations on race where someone is discussing their experience, and another person of a different race gives an example, alluding or outright stating that the two experiences are the same (they aren’t). The connecting factor in all centering moments? The person that is doing the centering has changed the conversation to revolve around them and what they want to talk about – it might not even be a personal “Focus on me!” thing – it might be as simple as changing the subject to what they want to discuss, versus giving the current conversation weight and care.
When you realize you’ve been centering yourself, there are a few things you can do in your next conversation – and a few things to do when you realize you’re dealing with a center-er.
- If it’s you:
Spend Time Listening
There are a lot of times I feel like a broken record, and this is one of them. I truly believe that if we actively make the choice to listen better, we won’t commit these communication sins like centering. If you take an active stance in a conversation as a listener, you’ll see that the conversation usually doesn’t need your example to move forward.
Instead of inserting yourself as the prime person in an issue, ask questions about what is currently being discussed. I have a friend that will literally make every conversation about her: she will add an example, think things are directed at her when they are larger comments in a conversation, and she rarely, if ever, asks questions. Don’t ask a question just to insert your opinion – that’s obvious and people need to stop doing that. Ask a question because you’re generally curious about what the person is talking about!
- If it’s someone else:
You’re going to notice centering pretty quickly once you’re aware of what it is, so when you see it, gently guide the conversation back to where it was. Sometimes this works pretty well, and sometimes – not so much. Try this first, then aim for the larger options like…
Notice I said “assertive” and not “aggressive” – people generally don’t respond well to aggressive. You can easily say something like, “Hey, thank you for that example! We were actually talking about X and their experience. Let’s get to yours in a bit; I don’t think we were done.” Whatever works in your own glossary of terms, you can bring it back by being clear, direct, and concise.
Pull Them Aside
If this happens a lot, and with a person that you’re semi-close to, pull them aside and let them know what they are doing. They may or may not see it, and they may or may not respond well – and that’s ok! Chances are, if you get to this point of pulling someone aside, it’s probably bad enough that you’re out of options. Have a quiet and calm conversation with them, and be sure to tell them how you feel – a conversation with a person who centers doesn’t feel good, and might even lead to you ignoring that person – or avoiding them all together.
All in all, remember that conversation is a two-way street: you can’t just take the entire time.