Death to Self-Centering Conversation


I’m sick of COVID-19. I’m sick of black vs. white.”


“I worked for everything I had, so don’t use the ‘white privilege’ argument on me.”


“I don’t see color!”


“I’ve done my research and I just don’t think I NEED to wear a mask. I know my rights.”


Do these comments send you into panic mode? Are you breaking out in hives? Is your fight or flight response kicking in? Emotional distress aside, I pulled these from my own Facebook timeline because I saw a commonality: I, me, mine. I know these are in the context of a larger social conversation, but pronouns matter, people! Let’s extract and examine the language used, because ultimately it qualifies as self-centering. Self-centering conversation isn’t a new concept, but its faults seem to be particularly relevant right now.


So what is self-centering conversation? As Conversations With defines it: “Centering is a clear indication that you are not listening to understand, but rather listening to reply.” Or as the popular quote from Stephen Covey’s book goes, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply...They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.”


You probably see this all the time. Essentially, this occurs when we choose a first-person tense narrative to talk about ourselves and our experiences as a response to a topic, problem, or experience of someone else. This could be extremely well-intentioned; oftentimes people believe this is how they show sympathy or support. For example:


Person A: “I just found out I have cancer.”


Person B: “Wow, I’m so sorry. I kind of know how you feel. My grandmother had cancer. It was really hard for me to process that.”


There is nothing outrageously wrong or atrociously rude with that response; however, it flips the focus from Person A to Person B almost immediately. And if it happens repeatedly, Person A is going to get very irritated. Understandably so.


Let me first disclaim that sharing personal experiences and narratives is an essential form of storytelling and our world wouldn't exist without it. But the distinction between EGO and EMPATHY is paramount. If our ego is large enough, we view our perspectives as the ultimate truths and are unable to process anything that tells us otherwise. Recently, this has shown up through people throughout our country dismissing a global pandemic and systemic racism because it doesn’t fit within their personal reality. It’s not a great look, America!


So what’s the remedy to self-centering conversation? Empathy, to start. The Good Trade has a great list of tactics to de-center ourselves, like thinking about your first-person tenses and pronouns, or questioning who your contribution is truly serving. Outside of your social media behavior or current events, everyone could benefit from growing and refining their empathy skills. Because progress comes even from small changes, and we could all stand to be a little (or a lot) more empathetic right now.

© 2020 by Abby Brown​

Chicago, IL