The Right Way to Respond to That Chatterbox, According to Experts

Updated: Nov. 10, 2022

Over-talkers dominate dinner parties and hijack work meetings. Here, effective strategies to deal with someone who's always talking (and how to tell if you're the one who can't be quiet).

The-Right-Way-to-Respond-to-That-Chatterbox,-According-to-ExpertsTravis Rathbone for Reader's Digest

WE HAD A COUPLE over for dinner the other night—friends of friends—and at first, the woman seemed charming. Then she seemed to be sort of monopolizing the conversation. Then we realized she NEVER SHUT UP.

And then we noticed her husband’s head cocked at a weird angle. He had fallen asleep at the dinner table. Lucky guy.

What’s shocking is not that some people talk too much. What’s shocking is that they don’t seem to pick up on even the most obvious cues—a passed-out spouse, for instance.

Like all annoying habits we hate to admit we have, over-talking has a scientific explanation. It turns out there are two basic types of chatterbox. The first actually work at being entertaining because they feed off our appreciation. Whether they succeed is up to the listener. The second group is made up of those who fear that if you stop listening, they stop living. It’s a problem psychologists ascribe to everything from loneliness to insecurity to arrogance. University of Texas professor of psychology Art Markman, author of the book Smart Change, says non-stop talkers “need social interaction to survive, so they’re just looking to plug into somebody and don’t care who it is. They smell social interaction and go into a feeding frenzy.”

One neighbor of ours is such an extreme chatterbox, everyone in the area dives inside when they see her coming, lest she catch their eye and start saying, “Our grandson was just given a promotion, and you know how you can get a promotion at his job? The only way you can get a promotion is …” This is not chitchat. This is an act of aggression. Talkers mug listeners—they steal their time. If you’re ever confronted by a yakker—and you will be—try these coping strategies:

At work

To fend off a chatterbox at work, says Jennifer Kalita, CEO of the Vesta Group, a communications consulting firm in Washington, DC, “add the expression hard stop to your vocabulary. At the beginning of a meeting, say ‘I have a hard stop at 3 p.m., so let’s dig right in.’” Somehow a hard stop sounds set in stone, giving you the perfect out. Dealing with other types of toxic coworkers, though, may require a different approach.

Another idea is to keep a chatterbox on track by playing dumb, says psychotherapist LeslieBeth Wish, author of Smart Relationships. “Say ‘I like what you’re saying; I just want to make sure I’ve got it right.’” This way, you force the talker to focus.

The-Right-Way-to-Respond-to-That-Chatterbox,-According-to-ExpertsTravis Rathbone for Reader's Digest

With friends

If a longtime chum routinely goes into talk radio mode but you don’t want to sever the relationship, “plan activities where talking isn’t allowed,” says Kalita. “Go to the movies instead of dinner. Attend a workshop together instead of a party. Take a Zumba class in lieu of lunch.” On the other hand, if the incessant talking becomes a burden rather than an annoyance, it may be time to end the friendship.

At home

“My mom and I would watch TV while Dad sat in his recliner and talked,” recalls writer Jess Kennedy Williams. “We learned to block him out until his voice went up like he was asking a question, and then we’d say, ‘Yes, I know,’ or whatever.”

There are far better ways to keep peace in the family. The best one is to simply keep yourself busy while the talkers talk so you won’t feel they’re totally wasting your time. Sort the laundry, paint the kitchen, brand the cattle. Multitasking is key.

A chatterbox? Moi?

Might you be an unwitting member of the chatterati? To find out, says Kalita, examine your potential chatterbox habits like a detective. “When your friend is speaking, are you really listening or just thinking about the thing you’re going to say next? When your friend tells you a story about an alligator, do you need to tell a bigger, more shocking story about an alligator?”

Perhaps most saliently: Did you ask any questions? Did you follow up with more questions? And were these questions not of the “That’s awful. Wanna hear what happened to me today?” variety? There are ways to brag without sounding like a jerk, you know. A real conversation involves listening, back-and-forthing, nodding, looking surprised—basically, all the stuff you see Dr. Phil doing when he’s not telling his guests how crazy they are.

There is, however, one time when you are absolutely allowed to dominate the conversation to your heart’s content, and that is when that heart of yours is bursting. If your dog died, your daughter got engaged, you just lost your job or got elected to the Oval Office—if it’s a really big moment in your life—babble on.

Just don’t forget to thank whoever’s listening for his or her time.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest