Some people at work are natural journalists. When they describe situations, they stick to the facts, important facts first, in a logical sequence, without fluff. It's a talent some people lack. At the other extreme are ramblers who just can't get to the point. They start with secondary details, or they "bury the lead," as journalists would say.
If you supervise a rambler, maybe you can do something about it. Coaching, mentoring, performance improvement — all are options. But if there's a rambler in your life, someone you don't supervise, you probably can't help. You can contact the supervisor and suggest something, but the supervisor probably knows about the problem, and is either unwilling or unable to address it.
Your problem, then, is to deal with listening to the rambler, which can be so unnerving that listeners sometimes engage in abusive behavior that is itself problematic. What can you do to remain calm and avoid taking actions that raise questions about your own mental stability? Here are some suggestions for maintaining self-control.
- Maybe you're the one who's lost
- It's possible that you can't follow the rambler because you're just lost. Have you really been paying attention? Do you know all you need to know to understand what's being said? Check yourself, objectively.
- If listeners seem disengaged, some ramblers assume they aren't supplying enough detail. They become even more verbose. They supply background that they feel might help listeners understand, which exacerbates the situation. If you engage, and let yourself appear to be engaged, the rambler might not ramble as much.
- Intervene early with a closed-ended question
- When you'reInterruptions that build on
what the rambler was saying
at that point are more likely
to be accepted as polite dealing with known ramblers, intervene before they get rolling. Ask a closed-ended question — one that has a numeric or yes/no answer. "Yes, it's trouble, I agree. Do you think it's a two-hour job or a half day?" When you get the answer, you can try to close the conversation: "OK, that'll do it, thanks."
- Know how to interrupt politely
- Interruptions that build on what the rambler was saying at that point are more likely to be accepted as polite. Follow with a closed-ended question. For example, "I've often thought that myself. Would they accept it if we did something like that?"
- Know how to get back on the path
- Some ramblers branch into deeper detail upon deeper detail. When that happens, ask the rambler a question that returns the topic at least one level. "Wait, tell me again about <previous detail>." Note: use again, not more. Then as the rambler repeats that detail, interrupt to ask about the detail before that. Repeat until you get back on the path.
Remember how the ramble started. In an emergency, if you get totally lost in the rambler's ramblings, asking a question about the very beginning might be the shortest path to the punch line. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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