Yak, yak! Blah, Blah! When will it stop?
Ever had difficulty interrupting the insurance or double-glazing salesperson once in full flow? And what about the troubled person, who needs a shoulder to cry on, and on, and on! Or the ‘missionary’ (someone with a drum to beat) who won’t desist until their ‘sermon’ is finished. Then there’s the neighbour who just happens to be there every time you come home or the work colleague with a problem a day, to keep the work away.
Who are they?
Who do you know who, once started, doesn’t stop?
Chatterbox, attention seeker, door-to-door salesperson, gossip, anxious person, the ranter, the bore, the long-winded person, the telemarketer, Mr/Ms Monologue, the needy, Mr/Ms Worrier, the waffler, the complainer, the hypochondriac, the self-important, the egotist, the unfunny raconteur
Why are they?
- Some are self-centred, oblivious to others’ needs, uninterested in other people’s
lives, or what others have to say. They love the sound of their own voices.
- Some are shy, lacking in social skills, talking out of anxiety and, believe it or not, from a desire to be popular.
- Then there are the genuinely needy, those who are frail, elderly, lonely, desperate for someone to talk to.
- There are people with problems, bigger and worse than anyone else’s – give them an inch and they’ll make it a marathon.
- And there are those who’ve got something to sell, insurance, water purifiers, double glazing, financial plans, a religious belief, whose trick is to mesmerize you, glaze you, bombard you into saying ‘yes’, so relieved are you to see them go.
What do you do?
So how do you handle those awkward people and situations? Do you offer them tea and sympathy, a shoulder to cry on, do you listen and silently pray for them to go away, do you make excuses… until the next time, do you give in and feel resentful? Do you lose your temper when you can stand no more – being unfair to both yourself and to them? Or do you care and want to give them some quality listening time?
How can you gain assertive control of the situation?
Decide what you want
Above all, decide what outcome you want. Is it to listen for a short time to the needy person, then arrange for a more convenient time to listen? Do you want to encourage him/her to talk to someone else, a counsellor, for example? Or are you fine about talking to them now? Do you want the salesperson to go away or to ring off, or do you feel fine listening for five minutes to what s/he has to say? Do you want to end a telephone conversation? Do you want to escape from the room? You might feel differently towards a habitual offender as opposed to someone who is telling their story for the first time.
Gain their attention
Say ‘excuse me’, say their name. You may need to repeat it several times. Tell them in a definite but polite tone: ‘I’m going to interrupt you’.
State your needs/set your boundaries
Say how long you can talk for, or when you can talk, for example, ‘I’ve got ten minutes now, but we could talk properly if you call back at 6 pm when I’ll be able to give my full attention. I’m in the midst of a work project right now.’
Acknowledge how they feel/empathize
This is especially important when someone is upset or lonely. Show respect for his/her needs and feelings, even if you don’t feel like listening at length, for example ‘I can see/hear you’re upset/angry/want to talk and can well understand…’
Focus them/get them to be specific
Bring the long-winded person back to the point, by drawing his/her attention back to the topic or by asking focusing questions, for example:
‘You were talking about guests to invite to the opening, and the budget limits. Who else do you suggest we invite? Who do you want to take off the list?’
How do you feel on the receiving end of their behaviour? Say how you feel, for example: ‘I feel sympathetic…’, ‘I feel ignored’, ‘I feel exhausted…’ to the person who uses you as a habitual sounding board (or is it bored?), ‘I feel excluded…’ to Mr/Ms Monologue, or to the work colleague who only ever seems to appear when s/he has a big personal problem and no matter how much you try to help, nothing changes. eg ‘I understand your dilemma and have done my best to listen. I suggest you talk it over with someone who can listen professionally, who’ll help you make your own decision’
Request a change of behaviour
For example, ‘I’d really appreciate you giving me an ear too so that I can put my own point of view’.
Put them down, be rude and aggressive, ignore how they feel or tell them to calm down.
Acknowledge their feelings or situation. Appreciate that something is important to them (even if not to you). Be polite always and sensitive and understanding towards those who are genuinely in trouble, upset or lonely while respecting your needs and boundaries too. They may have no one to speak to and a few moments of your time could be a lifeline. Close the conversation firmly yet gently. Find out if they have someone else to talk to. Can you suggest an organization they could go to for practical advice, or to unburden themselves?
Mr/Ms Needy: ‘I’ve had a terrible row with my boss, you can’t imagine what she said…’
Mr/Ms Busy: ‘I’m sorry to hear that. I can see you’re upset. Come and have a word for a few minutes – I’ve five minutes to spare now.’
Mr/Ms Needy: ‘Today it started when she came in and yelled at me why I hadn’t left the finished accounts on her desk last night. I was on the phone, only a local call, but she blew her top. Then she went on about… and I’ll tell you another thing….., and yesterday she said….
Mr/Ms Busy: I’m going to interrupt you. I know you’re upset and want to talk. I can meet after work. Right now I have to finish this funding application’.
Mr/Ms Needy: ‘Do you have to do it now?’
Mr/Ms Busy: ‘Yes, I have a midday deadline.’
Mr/Ms Needy: ‘But how can I go back to my office feeling like this? Don’t you think she was wrong getting so….?’
Mr/Ms Busy: ‘Mr Needy, as I said, I don’t want to stop now. I have this funding application on my mind. Let’s talk this evening when I can give you my undivided attention.’
It can be exhausting being a listening ear and it’s important to be clear in your own mind how much you want to listen and what your limits are. It pays always to be polite, appropriately empathetic and clear, balancing your needs with those of the person who wants your time. Your assertiveness and time management skills will be very useful!