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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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
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- The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall
effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you
and your message.
- Achieving Goals: Inspiring Passion and Action
- Achieving your goals requires both passion and action. Knowing when to emphasize passion and when to
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- Bemused Detachment
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comity by slowing down.
- Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information,
we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for
interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process.
- The Risks of Rehearsals
- Rehearsing a conversation can be constructive. But when we're anxious about it, we can imagine how it
would unfold in ways that bias our perceptions. We risk deluding ourselves about possible outcomes,
and we might even experience stress unnecessarily.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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