Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Fight the 'one-upping' urge by listening and asking questions
Q: Over the past couple of years I have come to realize I contribute too much to conversations, generally in a "one-upping" situation. This was recently confirmed by a friend.
Besides just shutting up when I feel like speaking up, what are some other strategies I can use? I know my reputation as a one-upper will stay with me for quite some time.
Carolyn: You've got the right idea — biting your tongue when you'd normally repeat your signature mistake is the first step in retraining yourself socially. Once you've got that down, though, it's important to come up with something to replace your faux pas, since just sitting there inertly isn't ideal either.
The most effective changes are the ones that work with, versus against, your natural impulses. Given that your impulse is to make things about you, it might work to take what you're about to say about yourself and instead frame it as a question about the other person. For example, if you're about to say, "I had that same thing happen to me, and it was totally surreal," you can say, "That sounds surreal — how do you feel about it?"
Sometimes you'll come up empty, which is okay, because you'll at least be thinking of the other person, which might help you contribute later in the conversation. And every time you do resist talking about yourself, you will chip away at your reputation for being self-centered — both on the surface and at its source because merely forming the questions will turn your attention off you.
If that's not enough — if you still feel the impulse to gain an advantage — then it's time for a change of heart, versus a change of tactics. As always, the change has to start with the answer to this question: What is the void that you hope outside approval can fill?
For what it's worth: Often people who "contribute too much" as you have are actually not needy, but instead socially awkward, and it comes out as "that reminds me of me"-type one-upsmanship and bluster. If that's the case with you, then orienting yourself toward asking questions (as long as they aren't intrusive ones, a whole other issue) will likely suffice.
Anonymous: How can one distinguish between "one-upping" and "I understand what you're saying. I have experienced similar"? I do one of those or the other, but don't know which.
Carolyn: You know, this is a very difficult distinction to navigate, and often the only difference between showing your empathy and going all "me me me" on someone is how the beholder sees your anecdote. Big help, I know.
But I think one safe approach is to wait until people have finished talking and then to say something to the effect of, "(nodding) I sympathize. I've been in a similar position … " — and then not launch into your story. Instead, ask questions (there it is again) about their experiences, and let them ask you about yours.
Full disclosure: I'm not as good at this as I'd like to be and cringe at the memory of sharing some "been there" stories when listening was the better move.
Or did I just make this all about me?