When we listen well, sometimes others hog air time and just keep talking. It’s an inadvertent, and often unwelcome, side effect of good listening. Here’s a way I like to handle long-winded talkers that’s both effective and kind.
A reader wrote, “I’ve been told I need to be a better listener. But when I do listen, sometimes people just go on and on. At what point do I get to be the one to talk when the other person doesn’t know when to shut up?”
That’s a fair question. Sometimes people do go on and on once they’ve got the floor. It can feel pretty overwhelming.
It looks like they’re being unaware or, worse, selfish. Maybe it’s tempting to conclude they can’t self-regulate. That’s probably true occasionally, but more often, the gift of good listening just has such a deep impact on people.
I see this in my work all the time. When a person finally feels like someone is really listening, it’s akin to the sluice gates of a dam being opened after a heavy rainfall. The things they’ve been waiting to say, wanting to say, but have not been fully given the chance to say, finally get their due. They come out in a flood after being held back for so long and it can take a while for everything to return to normal levels.
I try not to fault someone for this. Conflict has a way of bottling up people. Deep listening is a gift too few of us receive and when we do get it, we want never to let it go.
I find that assuming the behavior has benign roots and taking harsh diagnosis out of it make me less frustrated by it. It is so much more soothing (not to mention effective) to notice the equal human in front of me than to sit in judgment.
So it’s useful to begin with the internal work of adjusting our thinking about the experience. Then, we turn to the external work — what we will say or do. I’m a big fan of transparency for situations like this.
It might sound something like this: You’re sharing so much that I’m struggling to take it all in. I’m afraid I’m going to miss something important.
Or maybe like this: I’m having a tough time absorbing everything you’re saying. Can we do this in smaller chunks?
Of course, there’s helpful transparency and harmful transparency.
Harmful transparency makes the argument immediately worse by failing to weed out the judgmental noise: Sarcasm, biting words, pointing out their flaws and selfishness, diagnosis of their frailties, and so on. It’s damaging for relationships.
Helpful transparency is the sharing of one’s experience minus all that noise. It’s intention is to convey, Hey, here’s what I’m noticing right now, what do you think about that?
When I’m feeling overwhelmed by a flood of words that shows no sign of abating, I like to use transparency because it communicates that I care and am interested, signals that I need help if I’m going to continue listening, and invites them to play a role in getting their own interests met.
I’ve had good success with it.