Workplace Wisdom

The Listening Post, Part III: Readers Ask for Extra Help

Most of the (numerous!) questions that readers have written to ask me about listening are actually about the relationships within which the listening occurs — or doesn’t. I address some of those questions in Why Should I Listen to You?!? Parts I, II, III. Here are my answers to readers’ questions about tricky listening situations.

Coping with a Repetitive/Boring Speaker

Q: How can you deal with someone who repeats the same discussions or topics over and over again? I don’t want to be rude, but it’s hard to be patient when you’re bored and annoyed!

A: The simple case is that some people enjoy their own stories so much that they tell the same ones repeatedly. But don’t just tune out! Some folks just want an audience, while others want to start a conversation. Some focus on the events of the story, and others want to tell you how they felt about what happened. If the storyteller expresses reasons for retelling the story, make the effort to listen to it again for the additional meaning. If you’re dealing with a person you know well, consider informing them lovingly that their story is wonderful, and that you’ve heard it before.

On the other hand, people who organize their thoughts by talking may need to cover the same ground several times to figure out what they think. Can you take the role of their “partner in figuring things out” instead of being their audience? If the job gets to be too much for you, gently ask if they’re aware that they’re going over the same ground, and whether there’s some difference they want you to notice. Even if you can anticipate their thoughts or you had the exact same discussion with someone else just yesterday, give the gift of listening as much as you can.

Sometimes people repeat themselves because they don’t feel sufficiently heard. You can see this tendency in action when unskilled or uncaring customer service reps cut customers off out of defensiveness or because they think they already have the full picture. Some customers give up in frustration, but the majority of them will repeat everything they already told the rep to ensure that they’re fully on record, the way they want to be. It’s almost always best to hear someone out the first time. Once people feel understood and validated, and that steps are being taken to rectify the problem they are presenting, they’re often finished quickly — even if they don’t get exactly the resolution they said they wanted.

When Someone Speaks in Gobbledy-Gook

Q: What can I do with someone who likes to hold forth, but turns me off by using jargon or industry terminology that I don’t understand? I can’t even tell what his point is — and it makes me not want to listen to him altogether!

A: This is tough, because the speaker probably feels good about the way he’s talking now; he’s showing he’s knowledgeable and on top of his game. On some level, he may be serving as his own best audience, so first try to ascertain whether he’s only reassuring himself or actually talking down to you.

If you’ve already told him you’re having trouble following him, and it didn’t seem to matter, tell him that you really want to understand, and ask him to try expressing his point again, just as he would for a smart sixth grader. He’ll probably be able to keep it simple for at least two or three sentences.

Stop him as soon as he wanders back into biz-speak and encourage him to give you the basics again. Depending on your relationship, it can be helpful to hold up a hand like a crossing guard or to pat his hand or forearm lightly as a way of getting his attention and guiding him back on track.

Ask questions or paraphrase after every few sentences to check your understanding. The more you can make it feel like a conversation instead of a lecture, the more likely it is that you can keep him at the level of a layperson. What you may find, though, is that he’d rather talk in a way that pleases him instead of his audience. My only advice in this case is to try to stick to topics where you’re equally knowledgeable.

Good luck. Listening is hard work!

Onward and upward,

LK

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