Context

During family conversations my sister, who is 27, often interrupts the flow of a conversation with in order to mention something that is marginally related to the topic at hand. Most of the time this falls flat; as what she's talking about isn't particularly interesting, related or something the group she's talking with understands. I'd say she is a "nerdy" type and will often bring up various forms of media that the family isn't familiar with.

Fictitious Example

Family A: Did you see that ludicrous display last night?

Family B: What was Wenger thinking sending Walcott on that early?

Family A: The thing about Arsenal is, they alw-

Sister: Did you guys watch the latest episode of Arbitrary Niche Nerd Media? It was really cute when Character A kissed Character B!

Family A: I really don't know what that is?

(awkward pause in conversation)

Family B: (topic change) Oh man, did you guys hear about Stacy?

I know this is a rather contrived "example" of how she acts, but I'm really trying to emphasize her poor timing and how these situations play out. Even if I try to play off of what she says, it almost always ends in an awkward pause and someone bringing up a new topic. I'd also like to state that in this scenario, my sister is well aware of the ludicrous display last night, so it isn't a lack of understanding of the topic.

My Problem

Personally I find this really frustrating as it often derails a good conversation. It's apparent to me that my family appears to feel the same way based on their body language/facial expressions. I don't want her to stop participating in conversation, but I want to bring it to her attention that the way she's communicating is generally not being received well.

I personally am familiar with the things she talks about often. She talks about games and shows that I've watched or know something about. The issue is a combination of the timing of her interjections and her (seemingly) not understanding her audience. It really isn't a matter of getting to know her better, but a matter of letting her know that mentioning X concept from Y media where my family doesn't know anything about X or Y is a distracting conversation topic especially when it's provided with very little context.

The Interpersonal Problem

My sister is rather sensitive (she doesn't have diagnosed mental health issue) and telling her outright would most likely make her just not want to talk or socialize at all. It's not my intention to upset her, or exclude her from wanting to participate. So how can I tell her that the way she interrupts/detracts conversations has been typically hurting the conversations she's be involved in a way that doesn't hurt her since she doesn't seem to be aware of the way she disrupts the flow of conversation. This is a request for techniques on softening the blow of a revelation that may not be well received.

  • 21
    Something that stood out to me is that you used an example where people were discussing sports, and she entered the discussion to bring up a different topic only she was interested in. From that example it is at least possible that this tangent was a deliberate attempt to derail the conversation because the topic of "sports" was seen as "Arbitrary Niche Sports Media", and the person identified as "Sister" may have felt excluded from the conversation and wanted to remind everyone else that some topics are not interesting to all conversants. – Darren Mar 20 at 19:54
  • 1
    @Darren Fair point. I would say that typically she derails very "normal" conversation in favor of "nerdy" conversation. However, my sister does have interest in "normal" topics including, for the sake of this example, the original topic in my fictitious example. – Arthas Mar 20 at 20:03
  • 2
    I note that, in the example provided, your sister appears to be interrupting what another family member is saying. Is that typical of these incidents? Is it normal for your family to interrupt each other during such discussions? – RDFozz Mar 21 at 16:50
  • 2
    @RDFozz It happens somewhat frequently. Sometimes she interrupts the flow during a pause, but she will often literally interrupt while someone is talking. – Arthas Mar 21 at 16:51
  • I wonder if you think Social Communication Disorder is a fit? autismspeaks.org/blog/2015/04/03/… – Jim W Mar 29 at 15:32
up vote 21 down vote accepted

Ask her to bring up the topic at a better moment

Next time she interrupts, indicate that you were interested in the way the conversation was flowing before and wanted to continue talking along those lines - but that she is welcome to come back in with what she was saying later on.

Show that you are interested in what she has to say

Do listen to what she says even if it she comes in at a bad time; don't tune out just because you were more interested in what was being said before. Signal to her that you are listening with your body language - make eye contact, nod, etc. Consider repeating some of it back while you address the interruption:

"You're right, [y] is very interesting because [z], can we come back to [y] once we're done talking about [x]?"

Let her take control sometimes

Conversations can travel naturally down weird, wonderful and twisty roads. It's only fair that everyone gets to take the wheel! If you're only talking among yourselves all the time it gives her the impression you don't care about or respect what she has to say. If you want to pick up a topic later, you can loop it back around once she's done or talk to someone personally later.

Try to understand and be interested in what she says

If you're not familiar with something... take the opportunity to learn about it! She may feel frustrated that she's the 'odd one out' due to her interests differing from most of the rest of the family. She might not get much opportunity to talk to other people about the things she likes or enjoys - it's an awkward and disheartening position to be in, having lots to talk about but no one to talk to. If she struggles to explain things herself you might consider learning about some of it yourself so you can back her up.


Your sister could be feeling alienated from the rest of the family and trying to awkwardly make up for this during conversation times. As a species we all have some degree of social needs; part of this is a desire to talk to and be listened to by others. In my experience if someone bottles this up due to lack of opportunities to talk to people it can all come gushing out at once and this can be overwhelming for everyone else!

I would consider spending more personal time with your sister - both to learn more about her & her interests and to give her a much-needed chance to chat with someone close to her. Tell her you feel like you don't know as much about her as you used to and would like to hang out some more; ask if you can join her with some of the things she gets up to; some things you might think you hated, you may find you enjoy simply for having done them together... others you'll at least both gain something from having tried. That's family!!!

  • 3
    I feel like you make a lot of assumptions about his sister and why she does things that you cannot really make based on the information given. I'm not saying it is a bad answer, just something you should perhaps consider – Raditz_35 Mar 20 at 15:38
  • 5
    Spot on. I've dealt with a number of people who behave the way OP's sister is described. It is my experience that all of them have felt that their needs for human connection were not being met. Very insightful answer. – Dan Anderson Mar 20 at 16:25
  • 6
    @Raditz_35 she 'may feel x', 'she could be feeling Y' don't read like assumptions to me so much as they read as suggestions as to what might be going on with her. – Spagirl Mar 20 at 16:45
  • 1
    @Raditz_35 Feel free to ask more specific questions. I've provided as many details as I think are necessary to the scenario. If you think something else is important, you'll have to ask. I'm not sure this SE's take on stating assumptions as part of answers, but it might make a good question on the meta if it already doesn't exist. – Arthas Mar 20 at 18:38
  • 2
    Instead of, "You're right, [y] is very interesting because [z], but we were talking about [x] so can we come back to [y] later?" what about phrasing it, "You're right, [y] is very interesting because [z], after we're done talking about [x] can we come back to [y]?"? I think replacing "..but we were..." makes the comment slightly less confrontational, given that the sister is hypersensitive. A good answer, though. +1 – Don Branson Mar 20 at 20:23

I get that your question is

This is a request for techniques on softening the blow of a revelation that may not be well received.

And I will get to it. But first, do you really have to "reveal" it by talking to her about how her "participation" in a conversation hurts the conversation?

I, like SEVERAL other people, have met a lot of people like that. One of the best and closest example is my wife. She suspects she might be autistic or at least have autism spectrum disorder. But nevertheless, she some times does something in the lines of your sister:

A: I don't know, I feel like [Country] has [x] problem.
B: True, but I think it is because of [Y] reason.
My Wife: Actually, [random obscure history fact that would make sense if she explained it for about an hour] is the reason why.

The point is, she knows so much about so many different things, she is kind of "incapable" of having a simpler conversation about anything. I've NEVER found that to be annoying, but like you said, other people sometimes may.

The difference between your sister and my wife is, my wife actually stays on point. So I usually encourage her to talk more about that random obscure fact she stated. Make that the center of conversation. Just so I keep everyone else entertained, I joke around along the way a little bit and I ask some sincere and serious questions a little bit; all the while encouraging her to keep talking and indirectly reinforcing her self-confidence to talk.

With my wife, it does not hurt the conversation to stay on topic, but for your sister, it does (I am basing this on HOW FAR AWAY her contribution is to the real conversation in your example).

Options:

  • That example you stated, is that actually how far away your sister is from the actual conversation? If it is, then you are right about wanting to let her know.
  • Is she usually not that far away but still strays away a bit? In this case, think on your feet and see if her contribution is salvageable. See if it can be brought into the actual conversation. Encourage it and make it seem like she is contributing some knowledgeable information to the conversation and everyone can benefit from that. This can be done in several different ways that motivate everyone's interests: Rebuttal of her statement, affirmation of her statement, questioning her statement, unfamiliarity (or faking unfamiliarity) of her statement. Any of that will make everyone want to be a part of the conversation.

Now to your question
If your sister is actually really far away from the conversation topic, then here is how I'd go about letting her know (has worked with my wife a few times). I would not tell her anything about it in front of your family members. Given yous say she is sensitive, you might end up just hurting her confidence. The reason I say that is, you say you can see from the family's reaction that they just got uncomfortable by your sister's "weird" contribution. You say something about how that is not in accordance to the conversation, you never know how your family is going to react to that. If they immediately jump back to their original conversation, she would feel horrible about it. Not everyone might think about easing back into the conversation and that is a risk you will be taking.

I'd rather talk to her in person, when there is no one else around. Here are a few things I've done:

Option 1:
Talk about how you guys had fun the last time family was there. Bring up one of the conversations that was talked about. Talk a bit about it. Make your sister make a meaningful contribution to that topic, and then tell her how that would have been an excellent point to make at the time of the conversation.

Actually "teach" her the best things to say and make her feel like she is capable of staying on topic and even provide very meaningful contributions to the topic. Instead of worrying about hurting her, worry about boosting her confidence for the next conversation.

Option 2:
Last family meeting is over, no point pondering on that. Talk about anything else at all that you think your family would understand. Have an open meaningful discussion about the topic. In the next family meeting, subtly bring that up. If your sister is not contributing or is derailing the conversation, just bring up, to the whole group, about how you had this conversation with your sister a few days ago and that she had some beautiful insight on the topic. Then "hand the mic" over to her.

Conclusion:
This is an assumption I am making, but I feel like a boost to your sister's confidence levels and a little bit of training your sister will automatically make her see what is good and what is bad to say in a conversation. My wife was always just nervous to say the right/simple thing. She struggles with what other people's expectations of her is and gets nervous and completely crashes.

This is just my opinion on how to handle this situation. If you feel otherwise, feel free to let me know.

  • 2
    ""Actually "teach" her the best things to say and make her feel like she is capable of staying on topic and even provide very meaningful contributions to the topic. Instead of worrying about hurting her, worry about boosting her confidence for the next conversation."" 100 times, this. – Finn O'leary Mar 20 at 21:21
  • 1
    Note that, to the sister, the comment may be as on topic as the answerer's wife's comments. I have sometimes taken a few minutes to work through the chain of connections that got me from point A to point K, just to prove (if only to myself) that there was such a chain. At this point, I know that chain's there (and if the reactions I get are too puzzled, can go through it for someone else). – RDFozz Mar 20 at 23:45
  • @RDFozz yep it may be completely connected in her head, my family sometimes joking ask me "go on how did you get there?" or it could be she is so bored she is trying to change the subject. If people were discussing football I would be – WendyG Mar 21 at 16:24

The other answers here are quite good, I would just add a tiny trick that is often used to deliver any kind of criticism in a way that it will be received with less hurt. It's called the "compliment sandwich" and it involves putting the criticism between two compliments.

Example, "Sister, your insight into the various details of the world of media always impresses me, I could never follow it as well. However, when you bring it up during a conversation on a different topic, it makes me feel as if you don't care what other people have to say. Even though it is really cool that you have such good taste."

They're a bit artificial sounding, but work surprisingly well (often used to correct behavior in the workplace).

  • 1
    I know it was not meant to be sarcastic but if I was the recipients of the above I would think someone is being sarcastic. – Nat Mar 22 at 13:29
  • Lol, yeah. The hard part about the compliment sandwich is finding two sincere compliments to give someone while all you can think about is what they are doing that is bugging you. – CaptainSkyfish Mar 23 at 14:38

I note in the hypothetical example, your sister is actively interrupting something someone else is saying. This may open up a slightly different approach to use; focus on the interruption, not the content.

Talk to her directly (alone). Tell her you've noticed she frequently interrupts someone else in family conversations, and that you're concerned about this; family may be tolerant of it, but if it's something she does habitually, it could negatively affect her relationships in the rest of her life. Suggest that she try to be conscious of what other people are saying, and to let them complete their thought before she adds her own.

Cutting down on the interruptions may not only reduce the frequency with which she blurts out these non-sequitors, but make it easier to try asking, "Wow - how did you get there from ?"

It does seem like your goal is to help your sister, not just get her to shut up in general. Make that clear to her - that you're concerned about her in general, based on what you see in your family interactions in particular.

Your Answer

 

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.