I was quite surprised this particular client came back. I tend to be blunt in my communications advice, but on this occasion, I was rather blunter than usual, writes Terry Prone.
The client is a man who loves sound bites and slogans, because he believes everybody but him should cut to the chase, manage our day and not waste time faffing around.
So at the end of the three-hour mentoring session, he fixed me with a gimlet eye. I’m not that sure what a gimlet eye actually is, but it felt gimlet enough to be going on with.
Once he had me gimletted, he got to the point. Hit the nub of the issue. Asked the key question.
“If you were to sum up your
advice arising out of this morning’s session in one sentence, what would that sentence be?”
Give him his due, he laughed and barreled off, happy out. I didn’t say “Shut up before somebody hits you with a 2x4 because you’re driving them crazy, talking at them.”
I didn’t say “Shut up right now and don’t speak until those around you give you written permission.”
No point to any of that. No point, either, in giving the one-sentence piece of advice, because here’s the truth of it.
A small — mercifully small — group of people who live at the extreme end of the unlistening continuum cannot, without intensive cognitive behaviour therapy, ever learn to shut up, and I’m a trainer and coach, not a therapist. Those who love them do eye-rolling like my family used to do about our grand aunt who shall be nameless. The one who married a Scot and never had any children of her own, which was merciful because it reduced the circle of referred mortification around her.
Every family has foci of shame, so let’s call this one Aunt Foci. Let’s even give her her own headline: Aunt Foci was a flasher. Oh, the family shame… She didn’t strip off or take photocopies of her more personal aspects, although this may have been because photocopying hadn’t been invented in her time. On the scale of things, my great aunt Foci’s flashing was minor. Minor but unmistakeable.
In every conversation, she managed to insert a reference to underwear, which required illustration.
The illustration usually involved the top end of her formidable bra and slip combination, or sometimes the bottom end of the slip, shared in such a way that the audience got, by way of a bargain, a bonus glimpse of the elasticated nether regions of the tents which constituted her knickers. Underpants, my mother insisted we call them, but if we’re being truthful, we should call them “bloomers”.
They could have been lent to Fossett’s Circus any day they were short of a big top. To us, as children, it was like meeting a different species. Although we had no idea what she was at, we did understand it was peculiarly different to anything any of my other grand aunts did.
They tended to behave as if a suggestion that they had ever acknowledged the existential reality of underwear would turn them into scarlet women.
They went through life armored in decency, self-respect and extreme restraint, whereas Aunt Foci was a sharer. In the decades since her death, we have wondered whether early intervention would have stopped her and wondered how awkward it was for the grownups in our families at a time when, to us to youngsters, she was as interesting and harmlessly exotic as a duck-billed platypus. Which brings me back to my friend the talker.
My friend the talker thinks his problem is an endearing personal characteristic he has always been known for.
In fact, his problem has ready sent him to me, because his immediate boss has told him several times that he talks way, way too much. His problem is likely to see him out the door of his current job because it is interfering, not just with his efficiency, but with the efficiency of all those around him.
A meeting with this man which should take half an hour can go on for four hours.
Now, to clarify. This is a man in his 40s who is charming, clever and amusing.
When he sits down and each of you fills and doctors your respective cups of coffee, the world looks good. When he starts to talk, no communications deficit shows.
He is clear, confident, evidence-based and anecdotal. A coach or a trainer to whom he has been referred sits there, on first meeting, wondering if they’ve been given a bum steer about this particular individual.
They think this while the individual links to a different topic, on which he is clear, confident,
evidence based and anecdotal. And another.
This particular man can and does talk for two and a half hours, uninterrupted by an incoming question. He is lucid and fascinating, if you could simply excise one single bit of what he is saying from the rest of it. But therein lies the problem.
You can’t. Ever. All thoughts are conjoined. All are equally interesting. All equally urgent. They come at you like a marching forest.
The people who work for him find their own methods of coping. One of them goes on his phone under the desk and completes his correspondence for the day with a few little side glances at social media thrown in.
“What’s the problem?” he asks, when queried about it. The man doing all the talking is never going to ask a question of the listener about what the talker has been saying. Saying it is his
objective, if not his reason for being, so let him at it.
Other staff become rude, breaking in and contradicting, just to stem the flow. Still others go to HR and indicate that if someone doesn’t do something about this man, the consequences are not going to be fun.
The human who cannot shut the hell up is the great unacknowledged, unaddressed problem of business in this country, whether that business is in the private or public service.
Their problem also most never appears in annual reviews, because bosses who want to say “You’re drying us all out of our minds by never listening and always jabbering on” couch it too carefully (employment law makes bosses more cautious than they used to be). They suggest that the executive might go on a listening skills programme. Good advice.
But the ultimate guidance is simple. Shut up. And then — managerially — manage how well the individual delivers on that instruction.
This needs to happen as early in a career as possible. If someone’s upward progress is likely to be halted at 28 if they don’t control their mouth, then there’s some possibility of rectification.
Leave it until they’re in their early 50s, and the only intervention that’s guaranteed to work is early retirement.
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