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:
- Responding to Rumors
- Have you ever heard nasty rumors about yourself? When rumors are damaging, they can hurt our careers,
our self-esteem, and even our health. Sadly, our response to rumors often compounds the serious damage
- Saying No
- When we have to say "no" to customers or to people in power, we're often tempted to placate
with a "yes." There's a better way: learn how to say "no" in a way that moves the
group toward joint problem solving.
- Discussus Interruptus
- You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so
often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?
- Exasperation Generators: Irrelevant Detail
- When people relate stories at work, what seems important to one person can feel irrelevant to someone
else. Being subjected to one irrelevant detail after another can be as exasperating as being told repeatedly
to get to the point. How can we find a balance?
- Start the Meeting with a Check-In
- Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things
are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And on July 4: 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. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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