Communication is key when it comes to engaging in relationships. For most of us, we didn’t take a life class that tells us the best way to share. We didn’t learn quality interactions and how to have intimacy with the people around us. One of my favorite relationship tips is the concept and difference between “Support” and “Shift” responses. Sociologist Charles Derber crafted this concept in an effort to address the broader term “Conversational Narcissism.” The notion of conversational narcissism is exactly like what it sounds like. It is the pattern that some people have of turning the subject of every conversation back to themselves. This skill is designed to combat this tendency and teach how to avoid conversational narcissism.

A “shift response” will often shift the focus back to yourself, whereas a “support response” will keep the focus of the conversation on the speaker. Shift responses are a demonstration of what some might call conversational narcissism. For most of us, we’ve likely had experiences where we end up telling a friend or loved one a story and feel disheartened when they immediately jump into telling a story about themselves and are no longer engaging with the content that we said. Maybe you start telling your uncle Henry about your new career side project and he launches into a story about his own career trajectory and issues that he had. So while you ARE engaging in a conversation, you start to feel smaller and less important than him and his experience. 

Here are some examples of shift responses: 

Person A: I saw Barbie last week with a few friends. 

Person B: Oh I’ve seen that too. I thought it was really poorly done, the actors were too mainstream. 

Person A: I’m thinking about getting a new job. 

Person B: Ugh, I’ve also been thinking about this; I have no idea what I would do though, the job market is so challenging right now. 

Person A: My mom just got a German Shepherd puppy. 

Person B: Oh my gosh, I love German shepherds, I follow some accounts on Instagram that have the cutest pics. 

While subtle, and while not necessarily “bad” responses, shift responses don’t engage in the speaker’s content in a way that facilitates hearing the other person’s story. So while it will keep the conversation moving, it begs the question of: are you listening to respond or are you listening to have a connecting moment with the speaker? 

On the other hand, support responses will engage in the speaker’s content in such a way that the listener will learn more about their experience/life/story. 

Here are some examples of support responses:

Person A: I recently got this new video game and I’m so excited to play it.

Person B: Oh, what is the name? What’s made you excited about it? 

Person A: I just love French pastries, last time I went to Paris I made an effort to get as many as possible. 

Person B: I totally get that, which ones are your favorite? 

Person A: I’m hoping to buy a home in the next year. 

Person B: Oh really? Where are you hoping to find one? Tell me about your thought process. 

So again, while subtle, support responses are designed to center the speaker’s experience. The truth of communication and listening is that we typically feel the most supported and held when we are interacting with someone who showcases an interest in our lives and investment in our personal stories. By stopping to consider whose experience we are centering, we can develop more thoughtful skills as listeners and therefore create more meaningful interactions with one another. 

The best way to start engaging with this skill would be to use mindfulness. Start noticing, “How do I approach my conversations? Am I listening to respond with shift responses? Or am I listening to engage with the content like within support responses?” If you find that you are someone who engages in “conversational narcissism” tendencies and often resorts to shift responses, don’t be hard on yourself. We are all only human and learn new things all the time. This can be a good opportunity to begin to practice. Maybe it starts with communication mediums like texting and gradually builds to encompass real-life communication as well. In time, you will feel more confident in being a thoughtful communicator with richer conversations.

Article written by Caroline Quintanilla, LCSW

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