You might know somebody like this.
Advice columns have been full of questions lately about how to handle the people who interrupt you, talk over you, or just never listen to what you have to say. (Yes, I still read advice columns—it’s satisfying to spend a moment on other people’s problems instead of my own.)
Anyway, these grievances sounded familiar; I think they will to you, too.
“The guy can turn any conversation into an excruciating monologue. The Talker walks into my office, ignoring that I’m working and launches into endless stories that only give rise to more stories.
I’ve never heard him ask anyone else how they’re doing. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed The Talker allow anyone else to utter a full sentence without him interrupting and talking over that person.”
WaPo’s Carolyn Hax suggested The Talker misses social cues because of a neurological disorder. Well, it’s more charitable than labeling him a jerk.
Over at “Ask Amy” there was this:
“While not a fast talker, my speech pattern is not halting. However, I have several friends who finish my sentences along with me and/or cut me off to talk about whatever they want.
I feel very dismissed by these actions … These are good people with good manners, but I am made to feel invisible by their actions. What is your advice to help me get my message across?”
Both advisors suggest a direct response; I think they’re right.
“When dealing with people who can’t read subtle cues, be progressively less subtle — though never less kind — until you hit the point where he gets it. Or just cut straight to: “Wait, wait, wait, I’m interrupting you — I’m working and can’t talk right now.”
Amy Dickinson frames a direct message as helping the interrupter:
“At this point, you might kindly help them to refrain from engaging in this very bad habit. It’s annoying! It’s rude! And they probably do this to other people.
When someone talks over you, you might raise your hand: ‘Oops, you’re interrupting me. You’re talking over me. Do me a favor and let me finish my thought, okay?’”
Then there was this humorous take from one of Amy’s readers. “When I find myself in similar situations, I often say with great effectiveness, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was done.”
This kind of direct approach really is the best way to respond to I-I-I-me-me-me types. Subtlety is lost on them. And if we don’t intervene, we get more of the same in the next conversation. And the one after that.
It does get tricky in business though, if the interrupter/over-talker is a boss or a client. In both cases, we want to be careful about maintaining the relationship. No need to be a conversational doormat. At the same time, it’s smart to avoid a career-limiting move.
Tone of voice will make a huge difference in how they hear “Please let me finish my thought.”
Putting a smile on your face will put a smile in your voice too. That friendly tone will make the message sound more pleasant and more easily accepted.
At the same time, you want to sound firm. So be sure there’s no question mark in your voice. “I’d like to finish my sentence.” Not “I’d like to finish my sentence?” (If you make it a question, it’s entirely likely their unspoken answer will be “No.”)
If the shoe’s on the other foot …
Maybe you read this far with the uncomfortable feeling that some of these complaints could be made about you. What if you’re the one cutting people off, interrupting them, and making them feel invisible?
You’ll delight your friends and colleagues and enhance your own chances for success if you make this the year you become a better listener. And no, a resolution won’t do the trick.
Here are five quick tips for listening better:
• Stop talking.
Yes, it sounds obvious. And, it’s easy to talk too much! We’re enthusiastic about our work, our products, what we can do for our clients. It’s tempting to just run off at the mouth.
To be a better listener, I need more economy in the way I express myself. Still with enthusiasm. But not so many words.
• Give up multi-tasking.
It’s really a myth anyway. The brain science says we don’t, in fact, focus on two things at the same time. We flip back and forth rapidly between them. And they both suffer as a result.
• Face them full-on.
Imagine listening with your entire body. Of course, we hear with our ears. Just experience yourself listening with the whole of you, as if you’re a satellite dish receiving the signal. It’s much more powerful.
And looking at the person helps so you’re seeing their physical cues as well as hearing their words.
• Listen all the way to the end of their sentence.
Even when you’re very sure you know exactly what they’re going to say. Especially when you’re very sure you know exactly what they’re going to say.
It can be so tempting, because we’re in a hurry, because we want to move on already, or maybe because we want to talk ourselves…to finish their sentence for them. Or to just cut them off and start talking before they’ve completed their thought. Resist the temptation.
• Pause for a beat before you jump in.
That space is so welcome. It makes people feel heard and understood, makes them feel that you’re genuinely interested in them.
It’s also a valuable information-gathering tool. Most people aren’t that comfortable with silence. So, if they pause, and you don’t jump in to fill the gap, they may very well fill it themselves. With information that you wouldn’t even have known to ask for. The pause lets you learn a lot about people.
You know me—always eager to listen to you.
Post a comment below to tell us about The Talker in your world. Or your own intention to listen better.
I have been in meetings with an officer of a professional organization who will not relenquish the floor. He will use ‘Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm until he has thought of his next sentence. Annoying! Being the politically smart person I am, I interrupted him.
Yes, the space-holder can work, Kristina, to keep someone else from grabbing the conversational ball and running with it. It sure is annoying though. And I’m not surprised that it didn’t keep you from jumping in. 😉
A good way to listen is to ask a question about what the other person just said- making sure they know you want to understand. A Question that confirms you were listening and that you value what they have to say.
Most people don’t listen – they only only want a break to say their own story.
Questions are a fabulous conversational lubricant, Jack. They keep the dialogue moving smoothly. It’s surprising, sometimes, what you can learn by asking and listening.
Great advice, Catherine. I’ve worked hard to be conscious of this and listen attentively as others speak. You learn far more by listening than talking.
Yes you do, Tom. Its worth the work, to develop our ability to really listen.
Catherine – great topic. It made me think of a networking event I attended recently where the moderators were acting coaches. They gave us an improv exercise where you’re having a conversation with someone but you HAVE TO start your comment by using the final word(s) that the other speaker used. For example, speaker A says “I had eggs for breakfast this morning.” Speaker B would then say something like “For breakfast this morning, I went to a networking meeting.” And so on.
It’s a powerful exercise that forces you to listen intently to everything the other person says and you can’t even formulate your comments until they finish talking. I love it and am trying to use it to listen better this year.
That’s fabulous, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been using some improv work in a program I call “From Furious to Curious: Cordial Conversations in a Polarized World.” The exercise you describe would be a good one to try out. And good for you, setting a goal to listen better this year!