Many of us will have come across a situation where we feel someone speaks too often or for too long. When we do this ourselves, our lack of sensitivity or awareness or 'mindfulness' hinders effective communication.
It could be in meetings where someone contributes on every point or talks for much longer than many would like, or it is a parent who goes on and on and on at a child, or a workshop where the presenter doesn't give any time to discuss the topic being presented.
Where we do this, the communication we seek to achieve becomes progressively less effective.
If we speak for too long at a one-off occasion, we will have bored our listeners and hence lost their attention. We also will not have left space for them to respond to what we have said and so will not have heard different perspectives which could have led to greater learning and understanding of what it is we are talking about – for both our listeners and ourselves.
If we do it on a regular basis in meetings, for example, we will decrease the effectiveness of our communication because people will perhaps not turn up to the meeting to avoid the tedium. Or when we start to speak, people will know what to expect and will start reading their paper, or planning their shopping or will look out the window seeking distraction.
These are the more passive responses.
Others will resent the space we take up and cease to listen to what we are trying to say, even if it is a useful, if drawn out point, and will be resistant to our ideas and thoughts not because they disagree with the ideas themselves but because we take up so much time communicating them and they don’t want to encourage us to keep talking!
Hence the effectiveness of our communication is again lost. How many times have you heard people come out of meetings saying "How many times do I have to say this and yet still no one listens or does what I’ve said to do?"
Well, often the answer to their question is "Just the once, and not in such a long drawn out way." But usually the response to their frustration is to continue, again …..and again….. saying the same thing.
A similar response occurs from parents who continue to say the same thing over and over again to a child. In time the child ceases to listen and is chastised for being rude or inattentive or other names are used to describe them.
Rarely does the adult look at their own practice and seek to improve the effectiveness of their communication. And hence the situation persists.
If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you always got.
An alternative scenario is where instead of someone speaking for too long, they speak too often. Both involve taking up others’ ‘air time’ for discussion and lead to resistance to what is said, not on the basis of the quality of their idea, but simply because people resent being excluded from the conversation as a result of this practice.
This often happens in meetings where, for whatever reason, someone feels a need to contribute an answer, or their view, on any topic which presents itself.
By not acknowledging the value of hearing others’ contributions, even if they do themselves know the answer to a question or they have a view or opinion about something being discussed, the quality of learning and the level of connection gained from the discussion is reduced if they continue to take up the time with their own views.
The effectiveness of the communication in the meeting as a whole is also reduced as there are fewer viewpoints taken into consideration.
Again, we see a situation where an idea or insight is not fully discussed because of the ineffectiveness of the communication about it, and so the potential for creativity and/or connection with others is lost.
It is often the case that creative insights and concepts are lost because the communication between those discussing them is ineffective and not because of anything wrong with the ideas.
So what can be done?
Instead of simply dismissing someone who speaks too often or for too long, we also have the capacity to improve the communication that occurs when we meet with someone who does this.
Whether we choose to use this capacity will depend on whether the topic is actually of relevance or interest to us, or whether we want to achieve or maintain a connection or relationship with that person.
If they are a work colleague or family member or partner, then either or both of the above may apply and possibly in other relationships too, and so it may be of benefit to all if we were to use our capacity to improve the communication that occurs.
It may seem counterintuitive, but if someone keeps repeating themselves, an effective way of dealing with this is to ask them to say more about the thing they keep repeating.
The reason for this is that people often repeat things when they don’t feel they’ve been heard or have not been fully understood.
This often arises when the idea or concern has been met with (mis)interpretations or opinions, many of which indicate to the speaker that their idea or concern has not been properly listened to nor, therefore, understood. Responding with questions, particularly open questions can improve the communication enormously.
Explore to hear more......
Asking questions to find out more means that the topic they keep repeating has consciously and noticeably been explored – instead of avoided at all costs which is the more common response in these situations. This makes it much more likely that the speaker will feel their ideas on the topic have been genuinely listened to and valued.
It also means that if they do start to talk about it again a summary of what they said can be given so that it is again acknowledged and the discussion can move on.
I am going to bet with you that when the topic is fully explored through (open) questioning and is listened to, and summarised, then it will be found to have many worthwhile ideas within it which will end up being used - and also that the person will stop talking about it. Or, if it is a concern or complaint that they have, that they will start to find their own solutions to the problem and will talk about it much less or even stop.
Of course I’ve given myself a bit of a way out there because it depends what is meant by ‘fully explored’.
The only person who can confirm that it has been fully explored is the original speaker themselves. If they confirm this then my bet still holds.
As a final footnote and observation on this Principle, I often find myself disappointed at 'conferences' where there can be a 'speaker' at the front of a room of perhaps 100 or more people and there is just that one person speaking for a period of sometimes an hour on a topic of shared relevance and interest to most, if not all present.
Why am I disappointed?
Well when you consider how much more learning, interaction, creativity could occur if those 100 people were enabled to discuss the topic together for a large proportion of that time then it would be a much more beneficial event for all concerned. Often at such conferences the only time available to discuss the issue presented is during a brief, perhaps 15 minute coffee break and then things move on to the next session.
How much more could people get from conferences if, as a standard expectation, the speaker speaks for perhaps 25-30% of the time allotted and the rest of the time is allocated for interactions, sharing of view points and then questions, not just to the speaker but to all present, such that answers can be collectively created?
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Dear Alan - I recently purchased The Guide which I think is excellent and highly useful in a personal and professional context. I am a teacher with the Skills Institute in Tasmania and I'm about to roll out communication training in Tasmania's only youth detention facility. I have an enormous amount of material regarding communication but none as succinct or as user-friendly as what you have developed.
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Working with 'Bullying'? - This may interest you….
Hello Alan Sharland
Thank you SO MUCH for this article! It brings forward some very key points about the phenomenon of "bullying" which I have been pondering for some while. Among others, asking to what extent can/should the person on the receiving end of the bullying/perceived to be bullying take responsibility/initiate steps to shift the paradigm? How can this happen without implying that the recipient is somehow responsible for the bullying behavior?
Laurie McCann, Campus Ombuds, Univ Calif Santa Cruz
You have put together an awesome web site with lots of fantastic materials.
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Hi Alan, ..... your site is great. I've been reading all the material and have to say its already made a difference in how I sort out/manage some of life's little problems. JH - West London, UK
This article is the BEST article on questioning I have ever read and I'd like, with your permission, to pass it along to our mediators.Your examples of both genuinely open and 'not-so-open' with explanations are very insightful.
ML - Canadian Govt. Agency
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