Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Talking with Someone Who Always Dominates the Conversation

Dear Crucial Skills,

What is the best way to respond to someone who has the habit of dominating conversations? My colleague will not let me finish my sentences, interrupts with an opinion or comment, talks at great length, and often repeats what she already said. I feel hostage to her while she hogs the airwaves. What can I do?

Talked Over

Dear Talked Over,

There’s no way around this other than through it. Either you need to let go of your need for conversational equity (or even airtime!), or you’ll need to have a conversation about your conversations.

The biggest key to a productive outcome in situations like this is to talk sooner rather than later. If you wait until you’ve built resentments about their pattern, your judgments will leak into the conversation and provoke defensiveness. If you’re already past the point of feeling resentful, my first suggestion is that you change your story about what’s been happening. Rather than feeling a “victim of their insensitivity” I suggest you swallow hard and accept that the reason for the pattern is not just their insensitivity, but your passivity. The first time someone hogs all the airtime, it’s their fault. But the tenth time it happens, you’re complicit.

For years I had a friend I’ll call Paul, who was a brilliant legal scholar and who had had a very storied career. I loved talking with him, but he lacked any sensitivity to subtle cues that I wanted to end the conversation. He could go on a fascinating monologue for an hour without noticing that I had said nothing. And when I told him it was time for me to go he would continue talking without taking a breath. Over time I began to avoid him in our neighborhood. I’d panic when I’d see him because I knew once he got rolling there would be no stopping. When my avoidance failed and I was trapped into a conversation, I’d feel resentful and judgmental toward him.

All that changed when I started to tell myself this truth: Resentment is often a sign I’m not setting and maintaining boundaries.

It took a while to let go of the righteous indignation I felt about him, and to start feeling remorse for the sniping I enjoyed while complaining about him to my wife. Once I accepted my responsibility for the judgments I carried, I was able to see him again for who he really was: a brilliant, fascinating, tender, and imperfect human being.

The next time I saw him, I had the conversation I recommend to you. First, I started with safety. Given that this could be a sensitive conversation, I tried to frame it in a way that clarified my loving intentions.

As Paul took a breath to begin an extended monologue, I interrupted him firmly. “Paul,” I said, “Before you continue, I’ve got something I want to let you know. I love our conversations. I love you. And I want to continue to connect with you like this. And there’s something I’ve noticed that gets in the way of the conversation working for me. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been dodging you sometimes because I was too much of a coward to address this. I’d like to share what’s not working so I’ll feel completely engaged when we talk. Okay?”

He nodded.

I went on to tell him honestly what wasn’t working. I negotiated with him a way of managing my own time boundaries when he was on a tear. The truth is he was 93 years old and wasn’t likely to reform his conversational style based on this conversation. So it was my responsibility to let him know how I’d handle it when I was ready to leave.

Your situation is likely different, but my advice is the same: you need to negotiate what you’ll do when you want more space in the conversation with your colleague. You might ask them what kind of cue you can offer to let them know you’re looking for an onramp. For example, you might say, “Will it work for you if I make a T with my hands, or hold up a single finger, or something like that?”

I tried multiple methods with Paul but in the end had to simply walk away and leave him talking. I would tell him when I had 10 minutes left, 5 minutes left, and 1 minute left. The cues made no difference in his velocity. The first time I said, “Goodbye Paul, see you soon” and left I felt both awkward and liberated. I stopped making him responsible for my needs and took that duty back. He never begrudged me for doing that and we had a wonderful friendship until he died a few years later.

Liberate yourself from judgment, take responsibility for your own needs, and there may be hope for a productive relationship.


Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

14 thoughts on “Talking with Someone Who Always Dominates the Conversation”

  1. Melanie Gao

    Thank you for sharing the words you used as you started that boundary conversation. Sometimes it’s hard for me to know how to get started, and I like the way you did it. This will help me hold more of my own boundary conversations, and hopefully lead me to lots of my own awkward and liberating moments!

  2. Susan Vargo

    So relatable…thank you for this phrase “Liberate yourself from judgement and take responsibility for your own needs.” That’s a keeper.

  3. Tanya Kruk

    “Resentment is often a sign I’m not setting and maintaining boundaries.” – this resonated with me. Thank you! I have realized some talkative people aren’t offended when they are interrupted, although I am uncomfortable to do it. At 93, he may have forgotten what the point of the story was and just enjoyed having an audience. Also, some neurodivergent friends may lack the ability to read social cues that the listener is bored/frustrated.

  4. Elizabeth Woody

    Thank you for this thoughtful feedback. I have similar experiences with a colleague, except they occur during our triweekly staff meetings over Zoom. We are a small department (~6 attendees) and one person hijacks every meeting. The topic can be work related, but often it’s not: their spouse’s eating habits, a dislike of dogs, a trip to the market. When I asked our supervisor, they dismissed it as part of this colleague’s personality, which gave me the impression the habit is not worth addressing. I appreciate the recommendation to re-establish boundaries in a 1:1 conversation; would the same hold in this setting (being on the computer and it’s not my meeting)?

  5. Just Me

    “let go of your need for conversational equity” that sums it up nicely. It’s my need, my issue, and judging another who does not recognize I’m not taking responsibility for getting my needs met is not how I want to live my life. Thanks for sharing this. I needed it.

  6. Diane M Palm

    Good to hear, my sister is like that, if I answer her calls, I can expect to spend at least an hour on the phone.

  7. deandriaperez

    Great advice, here’s some more! How to STOP people from INTERRUPTING you at work (3 POWER Moves)

  8. john yates

    When my brother knocks on the door I alway greet him with a large glass of water. I will have plenty of time to sip it, but no I’ll gulp it down and fill up another before we sit to talk.

    Before long I’ll interrupt by standing to excuse myself to the restroom. After 2-3 times he’ll ask me a question if I’ve seen the doctor about having to go to the bathroom so much.

  9. Superfan

    This reminds me of another response Joseph wrote a while ago that was very enlightening. It sounds like it was about the same friend or a similar situation.

    “One day I came to the following conclusion: If others don’t honor ordinary rules of politeness, I don’t have to either.

    Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not offering justification for spite or petty rudeness. What I’m suggesting is that if others are interpersonally insensitive, you must give yourself permission to assert your needs in ways that might otherwise seem rude. Assert yourself as strongly as you need to, but no more. For example, with my friend, I listened sincerely to his monologue, but when I felt a desire to change topics or add my view, I would interrupt him. I sometimes had to talk for a few uncomfortable seconds before he registered that I was seizing the baton, but he would then stop, listen, nod and engage. Our friendship continued for years, and the pattern never changed. I had to fight for my airtime, but he surrendered it when I did. My resentment disappeared and my willingness to spend time with him genuinely grew.”

    Also this one:

    “When others don’t seem to live in your world of social subtlety, the rules change! With people who either can’t or won’t pay attention to your open laptop (my friend on the plane) or tapping foot (my long-talking buddy), you must free yourself of the self-paralyzing obligation to be subtle!”

    The skills for Crucial Conversations are precious to me since they enable me to have meaningful relationships with people I might have otherwise given up on. And I am so much the better person for those relationships. Thanks, Joseph.

  10. 'Roberta Curran

    Very sage advice, Joseph! I will trial this. I’m always the one who can’t escape from conversations like these – professionally and personally.

  11. Judy

    Please share guidance when on a phone call and cannot walk away. Thank you.

  12. Gary

    I’m that guy who never shuts up.

    I don’t do it to purposely stifle the other person.

    When I am in a conversation, I just have so much information that I want to share.

    It is only afterwards that I may realize that I overshared.

    And I don’t see subtle clues (I score zero on that test).

    I commonly tell people that it’s okay for them to tell me to shut up — that it won’t offend me, but it’s still hard for people to do.

    One thing that I have tried is to wear a watch where it’s easy to set a timer for 5, 10, 15 minutes. When it goes off, it makes me aware that the conversation is becoming prolonged (I *hope* that I don’t speak that *whole* time, but I’m sure I use the majority). Even if I give myself another 5 minutes on my watch, it refocuses me to get back to the point.

    If someone else timed me instead of me self-timing, I wouldn’t be offended. But I can see how some people might.

    I think my takeaways are

    – many people who dominate conversations in this way have a gap in the talent and / or skill to *not* do this, and may be working to improve

    – many people who dominate conversations do so with the best of intentions

  13. Brenda

    I also have a family member who does this. However, he dominates and says I am rude if I interrupt or try to make a comment. He says,”he is talking and I should not be rude or impatient and just listen.” He says I am not interested in going deeper into subjects, however, after 2- 3 hours of his monologue I am tired( Not an exaggeration!) and I don’t care anymore. It goes on like this daily and most conversations. If I remotely talk for more than 10 min he tells me I have diarrhea of the mouth. If I break away from the conversation he is talking about he says I’m superficial.
    There have been 4 hour arguments that I listened to and did not interrupt. I eventually just fell asleep on him yapping at me incessantly. No matter the explanation of his length of time, he is the better person and I am impatient( after hours of listening) . I cannot remember half of the complaints verbatim word for word to refute or discuss everything after that long of a time. He is not a lawyer but he dominates all conversations like he is a lawyer and a teacher, teaching you on every subject known to man. I’m beginning to really hate him and his excuses and badgering. How do I work around someone like this?
    When I try the crucial skills, he says “I choose to assign a feeling about his comments and take them negatively and I should choose to feel differently about them”?

    1. Tanya Kruk

      Wow, Brenda. This man sounds domineering and even insulting to you (talk about verbal violence!) A conversation is a two-way communication, not a monologue or lecture. Setting your own time boundaries sounds helpful. Perhaps something like, “Hi (NAME), I only have 10 minutes to chat today. I had an interesting day today, I… How are you doing?” Starts off with expectations of the conversation length and gets you starting the conversation. I would love to hear other helpful suggested starter scripts to this situation from this wise community!

Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox