Relationship Tips

How To Halt or Disengage From an Overtalker—Even When You Have Zero Clear Exits From the Conversation

Photo: Getty Images/Tom Werner
You know the conundrum: You’ve listened as someone has droned on and on about a recent ski trip or conversation with their partner or point of political tension, and you’re basically running out of “yeah, totallys”—but you also don’t want to risk coming off as rude. Maybe the talker is a friend who you suspect would take offense to a quick exit from the conversation, or perhaps you’re physically stuck with the person on a plane or while waiting in a line. In any case, learning how to deal with an overtalker is as much about your perspective and response as it is about their seemingly endless monologue.

While your initial reaction might be one of annoyance or utter exasperation, it may be helpful to take a beat and consider why this person seems to be talking so much, says Deborah Tannen, PhD, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. (Because, no, it isn’t always an outsized ego at play.) “It’s important to keep in mind that some people ‘overtalk’ because they're nervous, and the more they find themselves doing so, the more nervous they become,” says Dr. Tannen.

“It’s important to keep in mind that some people ‘overtalk’ because they're nervous, and the more they find themselves doing so, the more nervous they become.” —Deborah Tannen, PhD, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University

Similarly, a person with social anxiety may feel the need to fill all silences with words, or worry that you won’t start talking when they stop (and so continue to speak). Or, if the person appears to be rambling, speaking quickly, or increasing the volume of their voice as they pick up steam, what you perceive as overtalking could actually be a sign of pressured or hyperverbal speech, which are sometimes symptoms of mental-health conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, and generalized anxiety. In these cases, the person may not even realize what’s happening until you gently pipe up (more on that below).

The same disconnect can happen with a mere difference in conversational styles, says Dr. Tannen, perhaps driven by different cultural norms for pacing and pausing while speaking. “If two people are speaking who have even slightly different expectations of how long a pause indicates that one person is through talking and the other can take the floor, then the one who thinks that a shorter pause should be enough time for the other person to pipe up may get the impression that they don’t want to speak or have any intention of speaking, and so may keep going to avoid silence.”

As a result, much of learning how to deal with an overtalker is about figuring out when and how to gently jump in—because, yes, sometimes doing so may be necessary and helpful. Below, conversation experts break down how to do that, and what to do if you start to feel anxious in the presence of a nonstop talker who’s showing no signs of backing down.

How to kindly put a stop to an overtalker

Jump in gently at the end of a thought

Since many overtalkers might not be aware that they’re overtalking, it’s worth squeezing in a word as they seem to be approaching the end of a thought or repeating themselves, says Dr. Tannen. “You may find that as you start to speak, they will happily stop and listen.” In fact, this speech pattern of piping up before another person fully pauses isn’t necessarily interrupting, but rather something called cooperatively overlapping, which is common in some cultures.

To do that, it’s best to be direct but gentle, says conversation expert Debra Roberts, LCSW, founder of The Relationship Protocol. “You can say, ‘Hey, can you hang on a sec? I want to jump in here,’ or say their name, followed by, ‘I’d also like to comment about what you [or someone else] said. Is that okay?’ and then wait a moment and start talking,” she says. “This way, you are getting your message across without being aggressive.”

In that vein, it’s also important to consider your tone when you speak up. Generally, the softer it is, the better, in this case, says Roberts. “We initially react to how someone talks to us more quickly than we do to the content of what they’re saying.”

Use body language to show your interest in speaking

If you really can’t bring yourself to start talking before the overtalker in question takes a pause or a breath, you could try leaning your body toward them and nodding to show your engagement and desire to contribute. Or, you could even try raising your hand slightly, suggests Dr. Tannen, “not exactly as you would in a classroom, but in a way that makes clear you have something to say and gets their attention.”

Fabricate a reason to escape

If all else fails, or you'd prefer to leave the conversation rather than to participate in it, you can always make up an external excuse. If you’re speaking to someone on the phone or by video, you might say, “There’s someone at the door; I’d better go get it,” or “I’ve just gotten an urgent text that I need to answer,” or “I’m so sorry, but I have to run to an appointment,” and so on, suggests Dr. Tannen.

And if you can’t physically leave the location you’re in—perhaps because you’re speaking to the overtalker IRL while on a plane or at work—you can offer more of an internal excuse (again, whether it’s real or not). For example, on a plane, you might say, “It’s so nice to talk to you, but I need to close my eyes,” or insert another excuse here (e.g., read my book, do work), says Roberts. “You can also tell the person you need to stand up and get something from the overhead bin or use the restroom, and then, when you return, let them know kindly that you need to read, close your eyes, etc.”

Make a graceful, but vague exit

Sometimes, you might not be able to think of any particularly pressing reason or excuse to leave a conversation with an overtalker—and the good news is, you don’t necessarily have to, either. “You can simply find a moment to acknowledge the person and then excuse yourself,” says Roberts.

Say you’ve encountered an overtalker at a party, but you aren’t ready to leave the party yet. Roberts suggests saying something like, “I appreciate what you’re saying. If you’ll just excuse me while I go grab some water,” or, “Thanks so much for chatting. I need to step outside, so I’ll catch you later,” or, “I’m sorry to cut you off, but I want to be sure to say hello to [insert other person’s name here].” Then make your escape.

How to manage feelings of anxiety should you become trapped by an overtalker

Waiting for a moment to cut into a conversation with an overtalker or to excuse yourself can certainly bubble up feelings of stress and anxiety, particularly if you’re in a place where you can’t physically leave right then and there, either.

Whenever you might find yourself in that situation, Roberts suggests tuning into your breath, which can focus your mind on physical sensations and slow racing thoughts. In particular, try slowing down your breathing by inhaling while counting to four, holding your breath for four seconds, and then exhaling for four seconds, and repeating the entire exercise two to three times. “Circular breathing helps to relax and calm the nervous system,” she says.

At the same time, she suggests turning your attention to your feet on the floor by lightly tapping them or wiggling your toes. “This exercise will take you out of your ‘in your head’ thinking mode and remind you that you are more than your thoughts above the neck,” she says, “which can have a grounding and calming effect.”

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