Dear Carolyn: We have a few relatives, including a sibling, who we don't see or hear from often, as we are busy or live far away. We meet over a meal or for an hour or so, or at family gatherings requiring a drive, and I am so frustrated that they dominate the conversation, often talking about people we don't even know or subjects that don't interest us, in great detail, taking the bulk of our valuable time together.
We have interesting things to share, but as soon as the conversation opens a crack to let us in, they take over again, back to themselves.
I do not wish to be totally estranged, but I do not want to take my time when it seems these self-centered people don't really have any interest in me.
I would like to improve the quality of our visits. Can I say, at the start, "In these limited visits, I want to be sure to share about my X, Y and Z, so let's leave time for that and highlight the top topics in your life first" ... or something similar?
Carolyn says: Planting a flag like that is a fine solution — optimistic maybe, but pointed while still being gracious and certainly worth a try when de facto estrangement is the alternative.
You have other options, too:
• Asking them open-ended questions, so at least they're droning about themselves instead of Jan in Accounting;
• Letting them drone for an hour because it's an hour and it's not often;
• Replacing "don't see often" with "rarely see" ... and telling yourself it's not estrangement, it's mindful allocation of life.
• Going low-filter. "I'm sure Jan from Accounting is lovely, but I want to hear about you." You'd be surprised at what smiles can smooth over.
• Or no-filter: "I have things to share, too. Are you interested?"
• Sorting out whether you just want your turn to talk ("We have interesting things to share") or to achieve conversation — two different goals;
• And so on.
You have so many options because this is more nuisance than problem. A few boring relatives? Pah.
And I'm noting your options because when you deal with a nuisance mindfully, in keeping with your general values, you can actually solve a few problems or keep from creating some new ones.
Take your motormouths (please!): If you choose, say, to see them less, then that likely won't affect you much.
But if you default to that when someone's conversation style frustrates you, then you could find yourself isolated as your decisions to step back start to mount. Likewise if you opt to let them drone till the staff brings the check. Just a few decisions like this can pack your schedule with obligations you dread.
So my advice is to resist the pull to deal with this only on the margins. Instead, pick the people who really matter to you, figure out why they matter so much, ask yourself what kind of relationship with them is realistic, then invest your heart and purpose in them — such that "busy" and "far away" no longer suffice as excuses to be out of touch.
About the rest, be honest with yourself: They're peripheral because they're not really your people — and there's nothing wrong with that.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.