Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 14;   April 5, 2017: Listening to Ramblers

Listening to Ramblers

by

Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum?
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscape

Spreading at the rate of 150,000 acres (61,000 hectares) annually, Kudzu completely envelops this Mississippi landscape. Kudzu is a family of plants, introduced from Japan to the United States at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 as an ornamental and a forage crop plant. They are climbing, coiling, and trailing perennial vines.

In some ways, ramblers are conversational kudzu. You can't tell where they're going, and they seem to cover the conversation in a mass of detail. Photo by Peggy Greb, courtesy United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service.

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.
Engage
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong  Next Issue

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See also Effective Communication at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatComing June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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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. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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