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Volume 15, Issue 18;   May 6, 2015: Compulsive Talkers at Work: Addiction

Compulsive Talkers at Work: Addiction

by

Incessant, unending talking about things that the listener doesn't care about, already knows about, or can do nothing about is an irritating behavior that harms both talker and listener. What can we do about this?
A diagram of effects for compulsive talking

A diagram illustrating how, in some cases, compulsive talking leads to increased compulsion to talk. As anxiety increases, there is an increased urge to talk. This increases the annoyance to others, who then are more likely to complain about the incessant talking. This, in turn raises the talker's level of anxiety, increasing the urge to talk.

Some people talk way more than we'd like them to. They talk incessantly. In extreme cases, we wonder how someone can talk so much and say so little. Getting a word in can be difficult, which is bad enough, but typically, we don't even want to participate in the so-called conversation. We just want these people to disappear, so we can get back to work, or just think, or have a real conversation with someone else.

What can you do about such people? How can you tell them that their behavior is unacceptable, without destroying the relationship?

Some call these people talkaholics, a word that's derived (by extension) from the term alcoholic. But the name is misleading, because alcoholism is a substance addiction, and "talkaholism" is probably a behavioral addiction, like gambling. [*] Because substance ingestion isn't involved in talkaholism, I prefer the term compulsive talking or talking addiction.

We do have choices when dealing with compulsive talkers, but because the choices are somewhat unsatisfactory, the most severe challenge we face when dealing with compulsive talkers at work is accepting our own limitations. And the path to that acceptance begins with understanding the fundamentals of behavioral addiction.

Behavioral addiction Behavioral addiction involves a
compulsion to repeat a behavior
in spite of its severe negative
consequences to the individual
involves a compulsion to repeat a behavior in spite of its severe negative consequences to the individual. The compulsion arises from re-enforcing and rewarding stimuli that are direct results of the behavior. The reward is psychic — that is, the individual interprets at least some consequences of the behavior as a positive experience. Repeatedly receiving the reward induces the person to repeat the behavior that generated the reward. Over time, the individual can become so focused on obtaining the reward by repeating the behavior, that the behavior can become the center of the individual's daily life.

For example, some people talk to calm themselves when they experience anxiety. When they feel anxious, they talk, and they feel better. The next time they feel anxious, they're a little more likely to talk. Soon, they engage in talking whenever they anticipate anxiety. And then the problem can become severe, especially if they develop anxiousness about talking too much. If that happens, they can enter a regime in which talking continuously is the only way they can gain any sense of relief from anxiety.

That's just one example of the many ways people can become addicted to talking. It's easy to see in that example why trying to convince a compulsive talker to "stop it" is a fool's errand. The attempt to convince the addict to abandon the addiction can itself intensify the addiction. So if we can't convince — and indeed ought not even try to convince — the compulsive talker to change, what can we do? We'll tackle that question next time. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Compulsive Talkers at Work: Power  Next Issue

[*]
I say "probably" because, to date, the only behavioral addiction officially recognized by the psychology and psychiatry communities is gambling.

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