Answer my question. The one that I asked. Now please shut up.
May 3, 2011 12:40 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with people that don't answer the questions you ask, and speak too long about semi-unrelated subjects?

Here's a perfect example:

Her: "I made a document that tracks X from our vendors."
Me: "Great, thanks. But this doesn't quite give me what I need. You see, X is composed of sub-elements A, B and C. Where are those individual pieces tracked?"
Her: (three minute dissertation on why workflow gets tracked in general)
Me: "Yes, but where can I find A, B and C?"
Her: (ignores question and continues for three minutes, until finally...)
Her: "And on this other tab, it has links to the individual vendors' tracking spreadsheets."
Me: (clicks on links, discovers it has what I need). "A-ha! These other spreadsheets have what I was looking for. Thanks."
Her: (additional three minute dissertation on how spreadsheets are used by businesses in general)

I want to jump up and scream, "ANSWER THE QUESTION! I asked a QUESTION! It has an ANSWER! Tell it to me! Oh, look, now that I've waded through several minutes of bullshit and discovered the answer myself within your heaping layers of said bovine feces. Got it. I'm done. Please stop talking!"

Am I crazy?
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Grab Bag (36 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Is this just one person? Or do you have this problem with multiple people?

If one person, try asking via email. Much easier to skim/ignore useless information and she's probably less likely to type it all out.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:42 PM on May 3, 2011

You're probably not being as clear as you think you're being. I've found that people (and I) do that when they don't really understand what's being asked, so they're just throwing stuff at you until something clicks. Or they think you're asking just to learn more as opposed to because you need a specific answer. Work on making yourself more clear. Interrupt if necessary (there is nothing wrong with polite interruption, though some people seem to think there is), rephrase your questions, make sure you're being super clear.
posted by brainmouse at 12:44 PM on May 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

You're not crazy. This is an irritating quality that some people have. The only aspects of it you can control are: (a) how clearly you convey your question to the person; and (b) how patient you are able to be during the time period that they are not answering you.

On preview, young rope-rider's suggestion of communicating by e-mail is a good one, because it allows you to convey your question in your own words and you don't have to sit there while they muck around trying to figure out the answer.
posted by slmorri at 12:45 PM on May 3, 2011

Just start interrupting them. It's the only way to maintain your sanity. I used to abhor interrupting but you know, my time is worth something too, and I want my questions answered. As soon as you realize that what they're saying isn't in any way, shape or form answering the question, interrupt with, "Where are they tracked, though? That's what I want to know". The repeating of the question and the addition of "That's what I want to know" usually does the trick.
posted by iconomy at 12:47 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is this just one person? Or do you have this problem with multiple people?

Multiple people. I can't understand the communication style, or whether I'm not being abrupt with my questions. Perhaps I'm asking questions that don't seem open-ended to me, but are to other people?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:48 PM on May 3, 2011

I see this when developers are trying to show off. I just interupt them. I might go with email if I am on slow time and can wait a day for the answer but I usually have to walk over. I just smile and say "whoa!! slow down." or whatever when they start going off on a tangent, keep it friendly and jokey.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:49 PM on May 3, 2011

Am I crazy?

Nope. This isn't the evidence that proves you insane, anyway. Lawyers and Judges deal with this all the time with lay people. Court time is expensive and Judges are very busy. Lawyers are also expensive. We expect people to answer questions briefly and with precision. Irrelevancies are treated as non-responses.

Interruption and gentle repetition or re-phrasing of the question as, "I have another [important business activity] in a couple minutes. I really am only interested in [information you want.]" If they persist, you can try the fake apology: "I know your time is very valuable. That other information is neat, but I don't want to waste your time when I only need to know X, Y, and Z."
posted by Hylas at 1:01 PM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

"I can't understand the communication style"

Some people are so hyper-linear they have to explain, step-by-step, how they got to the answer they're going to give you. It seems to be a more common problem in professions where linearity is a virtue.

I'd interrupt more often. And with people I know well who do this, I tease them, "Objection! Non-responsive!" and re-ask the goal question. Since it's jokey and affectionate they take it in good humor and try to answer the question I actually asked, but I wouldn't do it with someone I didn't know really well.

Some people just CAN'T get there without the step-by-step deluge of uselessness that explains HOW they got there. In that case your best bet is to wait it out ... any interruptions will just slow them down.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:02 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

People need a couple seconds to figure out the answer to a question. Most people will unconsciously fill those seconds with chatter until their brain goes "Aha! This is the answer!" I suspect that is partially what is going on here.

My dad, incidentally, doesn't do this. If he needs several seconds to answer a question, he will spend those seconds in complete silence, perhaps staring just over your left shoulder. Most people find this to be disconcerting, but I suspect you and he would get along just fine.

I read a "body language" tip recently which might be helpful: If you say "Yes" or "yeah" as people are talking, they will tend to assume that you're not interested in what they're saying, or that you already know what they're talking about. If you keep your mouth closed and say "Mmmhmm" instead, they will tend to assume that you ARE interested and encouraging them to continue.
posted by muddgirl at 1:02 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are these your subordinates at work?

Sometimes people get nervous or feel defensive and it leads them to overcompensate or try to justify things that don't need to be justified. Or they're just trying to impress you.

In that case, more praise is in order. "Thanks, you did a great job on this spreadsheet. Can you show me A, B, and C?"

You also need to give them time to explain projects to you so that they feel like you know what work/how much work they're doing. That way they won't try to sneak it into normal conversation.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:07 PM on May 3, 2011

Not everybody knows how to bottom line things. In fact, I'm discovering that the ability to zoom in on one piece of information without a lot of contextualizing is a rare art. I suspect it might be from sloppy thinking, in which the answerer rambles out loud to collect their thoughts.

While interrupting the lecture is one strategy, if they really are talking out loud to collect their thoughts, interrupting them will actually make the answer longer than it would otherwise be.

My approach is to guide their thinking by interjecting at strategic points in the discussion to help them narrow down to the answer I want. It's frustrating, I know, but often necessary in order to avoid an even longer conversation.
posted by LN at 1:08 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ah, and even in a non-boss/subordinate role, people do this to me when I'm making them nervous or they feel intimidated or self-conscious.

It happens a LOT when I'm babysitting for a new family and they're afraid that I think they're bad parents so the conversation will go like this:

Me: How many ounces of milk does he usually have before bed?
Them: Well, we tried replacing it with water but then we talked to our pediatrician etc etc etc...
[two minutes later]
Me: It sounds like milk before bed is a good choice for now. How many ounces does he usually have?

The trick is, as I mentioned above, to praise and reassure them as well as give them the opportunity to explain things that they think need to be explained. I also refrain from being judgmental and try to cultivate a sense of humor about mistakes and eventually people relax. Sometimes you have to listen to irrelevant information because it's not irrelevant to them.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:13 PM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think there's a balance there. I have some long-winded co-workers, as does everyone, I think. Sometimes the rambly answers (including the ones I give) are:

- a total cover for ignorance. "I don't know" is a short, direct answer, and when followed by "but I'll find out," or "Bob should know; that's his area," sometimes even a good one. But some company cultures (i.e. some bosses) display such impatience with this that some people develop a habit of BSing their way around it, and/or some people are so insecure they can't just say "I don't know."

- an attempt to gain some recognition for all the work they put into something, or the expertise they bring to the question. "A, B, and C can only be derived by inferring Y from X, which you would know if you had a degree in ABC, not IT." Your example could demonstrate some of this, OR

- a sort of reverse fishing to figure out WHY you asked the question or what you're getting at. Your example could also demonstrate some of THIS. As an IT wanna-be myself, I often find that users ask poorly formed questions sometimes, and sometimes feel very challenged or get very angry if you directly confront them, ex. "What good is it going to do you to know A, B, and C?" where A, B, and C are typically misinterpreted when viewed as stand-alone statistics.

and of course there are more possibilities, but I can tell you're a really direct kinda guy, so I'll shut up, as I think those are the main ones. The first two are obviously kind of bull-shitty in varying degrees, but the last can sometimes help you clarify what you're actually after, if you're patient. And if nothing else, you often learn things that are useful some other time.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:15 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

2nding LN above, I once worked with a guy who could. not. summarize. conversations. Which is a critical problem if you're doing sales and marketing type work and you're constantly reporting the RESULTS of conversations. I'd walk in and he'd say "Hey RKS, the greatest thing just happened. The phone rang and I said XYZ Company and he said "Good morning," and I said good morning back, and he asked me if we did recruiting, and I said yes, and then he asked if we had any candidates who..."

So it took him 12 minutes to describe a 10 minute conversation.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:18 PM on May 3, 2011

I think the young rope-rider has your solution. People are self-conscious and nervous, and praise helps put them at ease. The woman may have put a lot of work into that spreadsheet, and is perhaps worried you will think it was a waste of time, so in telling you about why such a detailed spreadsheet is necessary she hopes to change your mind. Acknowledging how valuable the spreadsheet is (and therefore that she is valuable) with a simple "that's a great spreadsheet, thanks! Does it explain A, B, and C too?" will help put the other person at ease, and also inject some filler conversation to help their brain finish processing the last task (finding X) and getting ready for the new one.

Very focused and direct questions can sometimes give off the vibe that the question-asker considers everything except that specific task to be a big waste of time, and that makes some people nervous. Direct questions are obviously important to help you get the information you need, but you try preceding those questions with some chit-chat to cushion the direct question. There's a little bit of this in the example conversation you gave, but I suspect your tone is more perfunctory and annoyed than you think it is, and your coworkers respond to the tone instead of the direct question.
posted by lilac girl at 1:28 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

This drives me crazy too. I think the gentle suggestions above (give compliments; be patient; re-ask the question) are good ones. But in dire circumstances, where I really need a piece of information and the person I'm talking with just won't get around to giving it, and my time is limited, I use this technique I learned from my former boss: I'll interrupt the person by calmly repeating the word "stop" until he stops talking. Then I'll sit there with him in silence for a while, until he starts to get a little uncomfortable. Then I'll say calmly, "Listen to me." A few more seconds of silence. "Are you listening?" He will say yes, he is listening. Then I will repeat the question calmly and carefully. That usually does the trick.

(If I tried this with coworkers I'm sure they'd hate me. It's usually only necessary with challenging clients.)
posted by southern_sky at 1:39 PM on May 3, 2011

Another thought (which I admit I may be pulling out of my ass here) --

It's possible that the person describing things to you is themselves only able to understand a concept if they have all the background, and if that's the way they're wired, then that's how they're going to explain things to you.

I ran into the exact opposite problem at work here -- there is an issue with a database I've been working on, and I've been tasked with reconciling the database with the items it records. We thought we had one type of problem, but after some initial investigation we thoroughly resolved it, only to find another wholly separate and smaller problem, but one that would take a bit longer to fix. I was working with someone else on this, and she reported back to the main boss -- who then came to me to ask what was afoot.

Boss: "So, I hear the database has [first problem]?"
Me: "Yes, but we fixed that by doing [x] and it's fine now. However, after we did that, we discovered that [second problem], and so I'm -- "
Boss: "So how did [first problem] happen?"
Me: "We're not sure. But we fdefinitely ixed [first problem], and --"
Boss: "And is [first problem] part of [second problem]?"
Me: "I doubt it -- they seem to not be related. See, [second problem] is that --"
Boss: "Can you show me what happened with [first problem] first?"

She just really, really needed to see exactly, step-by-step, what [first problem] was and how it was resolved in order to get her head around the fact that [second problem] wasn't connected, and only then was able to listen to me explain how I was handling [second problem].

It could be that the people you're talking to are similarly "I need to see every last detail step by step before I can understand something, so that is how I'm going to explain things too."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:40 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

In this particular case, maybe you could be more specific. Instead of asking questions about the functionality (which is on their list of stuff to tell you, so they'll continue with that spiel), ask them to show you specific data-"how many Bs did we C in March?".

If you have the feeling that they're demonstrating the work they put in, and hence talking too much (I've been guilty of this), starting the question with "can it ...." is likely to elicit demonstrations rather than explanations.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:41 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a different context, but I have the same issue with my kids. My 10-year-old daughter is especially problematic.

Me: "Who left a box of cereal on the living room floor?"
Her: "I've been upstairs watching a movie."
Me: "That's great. But who left cereal on the floor?"
Her: "We've only been home from school for an hour!"
Her: "I think Callie was eating cereal earlier....."

I want to scream.
posted by tacodave at 1:48 PM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

Three possible reasons I can think of:

- In a lot of work environments, it's better to provide more information than less. It demonstrates that the answerer is on top of things, and if they don't understand right away what you're asking, it increases the likelihood that they'll give you a satisfactory answer.

- The answerer has to field a lot of similar questions, and the typical asker is not familiar with the answerer's department, workflow, tracking system, etc. So the answerer provides more explanation up front, because they often need to explain those things anyway.

- Perhaps some of the offenders have picked up on your opinion of their answers, and their explanations are really "Well, I'm as smart as you, and I'm going to defend myself."

Try prefacing your questions with some sort of indication that you're just looking for a brief answer. The word "quick" is good, e.g. "Got a quick question for you" or "Can you check on something real quick?" If you can boil your question down to one sentence, stick "All I need to know is" in front of it. For an added sense of urgency (and respect for their time), first apologize for interrupting them.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:16 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Her: (three minute dissertation on why workflow gets tracked in general)
That's your problem right there, you're not taking control of the conversation and letting them prattle on. You need to politely cut her off and repeat your question so you can get it answered without losing half your work morning.

You may become known as the blunt, perhaps not so friendly person if you go this route though. Make up for it by bringing in donuts every now and then.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:17 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does this only happen in this work-related context, or do you see it in other areas as well? Either way, it may not matter, but there might be another possibility: that they are deflecting your question or trying to, uh, frame their answer in a certain way. That may not be the case in the example you gave above, but I've seen it in other work-related contexts. Example:

Her: "Wow, that meeting was intense. How do you think I handled it?"

Me: "Proposal meetings are always interesting, aren't they? Everyone walks in thinking they know what is going to be discussed, which is kind of funny, because the topic under discussion is being proposed, you know? It's something that is still pending..."

Her: "Yeah, they're always hard, did I do?

Me: "And it's funny how emotions can run high when you are discussing a plan that is merely in the planning process. You know, that reminds me of a meeting I once went to at an architect's office...[LONG ANECDOTE]...and that's why I think getting everyone on the same page is a good idea."

Her: "Yes, but how did I do in the questioning portion? Or in the presentation part?"

Me: "Well, I dunno...I guess you should think about whether you managed to get everyone on the same page." [walk away]

Truth is that I was trying to stall for time in order to figure out a way to diplomatically and constructively phrase, "You got all the basic questions wrong, obviously pissed off Coworkers Q and Z, and effin' burst into tears (!) in the middle of the meeting. I would start preparing myself to get kicked off of this project, if I were you."

I've seen this sort of deflection happen in a lot of contexts, especially if the conversation at hand could be sensitive in any way. If I am the one doing this, I am quite okay with someone calling me out on the evasion, bluntly even. Then the conversation looks more like:

Her: "Um, so you said a lot, but you didn't actually answer my question."

Me: "I know. Thing is, I'm a little worried that my feedback might upset you. Please understand that I think your work is great overall, but in this particular meeting, you should be very concerned, for reasons x, y, and z."

Some of us are (at worst) cowards, or (at best) need time to collect our thoughts before delivering information that could be taken emotionally/badly/with offense...
posted by vivid postcard at 2:30 PM on May 3, 2011

Me: "Yes, but where can I find A, B and C?"
Her: (rambling)
Me: "Yes, but where can I find A, B and C?"
Her: (more rambling)
Me: "Yes, but where can I find A, B and C?"
Her: (further rambling)
Me: "Yes, but where can I find A, B and C?"

Stymie them beneath the weight of incessant repetitiveness, my friend!
posted by tumid dahlia at 2:35 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't mean to be a jerk, but if it's multiple people the problem might be that they think you don't understand what you're asking. For example:

Them: Here is a spreadsheet that shows X.
You: (thinks: Great! From X + apparently unrelated Y, we can decompose to A, B, and C, which although insufficient to base decisions on entirely would be helpful in the decision-making process) Great! How about A, B, and C?
Them: (thinks: Oh no, he thinks that A, B, and C can come straight out of X -- he doesn't understand about Y -- that means he might judge my performance on B alone without realizing that it fails to capture my other successes. I'd better give him the lowdown so he understands and appreciates what's going on) Webster's dictionary defines "performance" as... etc.

This sort of thing is quite common between hierarchy levels (what's obvious and foundational to old-timers seems like a stunning and easily misunderstood insight to newcomers) and business functions (IT thinks everyone else are boobs who need to be taught what a "mouse" is, etc.).

Try explaining in your question why you are asking it, in a way that makes it clear that you understand the ramifications.
posted by No-sword at 3:11 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yuck, I hate this too. It seems to be really common in workplaces. Maybe it started with marketing guys and executives, who notoriously talk in vague platitudes.

But sometimes it's not what it seems, and what they're really doing is giving background information they think you'll need to truly understand the answer. I do this all the time. For example, when someone who's not good with computers comes to me for help, I start with some first premises they may not know or remember and then walk them through the logic to find the solution. Sometimes I even take it to the extreme and start with an unsolicited computing history lesson.

My mom's friend, Joan, has been calling me for help with transcribing her husband's poems in Google Docs. When she wants to print something out, she always forgets whether she should use the menu bar within Docs or the one for Firefox. It's actually a pretty tricky distinction, so I give her this whole spiel every time: "The web was invented in the 80's as a way for academics to share documents. But more and more bells and whistles have been added over the years, and nowadays people actually make web applications—complicated web pages that you can use like a program. For example, Google Docs is a word processor that you open up inside of your browser. So consider this: if you try to do 'File->Print' in Firefox, it's going to print out the whole Google Docs page with all the icons and buttons and so on, because as far as Firefox is concerned Google Docs is just another web page. But if you do 'File->Print' with the menu bar inside of Google Docs, you're telling Docs to print out the document that it has open, which is the poem."

It often annoys people to death, of course, but if you're coming to me for help, I'm going to teach a man to fish. In Joan's case, she usually appreciates it.

So, to answer your question: you could ask the person something like, "What's the point of all these extra details?", to suss out whether they're just babbling. If so, you can use one of the tricks in this thread to keep them on track. But if they're providing legitimate background info, then tell them you don't have the time, or you already know all that stuff—or just listen. And ask them to make their intentions clear in advance next time.
posted by abcde at 3:34 PM on May 3, 2011

Seconding No-sword. I've been on the other end of conversations that sounded a bit like this. It always meant that I felt like there was an assumption hidden behind the question that I disagreed with. Like the classic, "Did you stop beating your wife?" if I just answered the question as asked, I would be implicitly agreeing with that assumption.

In your example case, maybe I think X is not really composed of A, B and C, or that there's a reason to not track them independently, or a reason they aren't spreadsheet friendly, or something. And then you find your answer through a link, and I'm thinking, "Well, technically, that's not A, B, or C, but I won't press the point."
posted by RobotHero at 4:16 PM on May 3, 2011

One way to clarify communication is to make no assumptions about anything, and say what you want.

In your line, "Great, thanks. But this doesn't quite give me what I need. You see, X is composed of sub-elements A, B and C. Where are those individual pieces tracked?", there are a couple of assumptions. The first (appears to be) that you didn't give clear enough instructions in the first place. This may or may not be true, but since the work product didn't include what you wanted, it looks like they had to read your mind in some way in order to complete the project, or that they didn't comprehend in some way. The second assumption, or lack of clarity, was that you explained the meaning of A B and C first, as if they didn't know what they meant, and THEN asked where they tracked those. You sort of cornered them into having to admit that they didn't follow your directions, or that they don't know what ABC means.

Something more like this:

Her: "I made a document that tracks X from our vendors."
Me: "Great, thanks. Can you insert columns for A B and C to the left of X so I can see those as well?"

Then, if there are any concerns, they can ask them. No matter what the reason for the lack of results was, you gave them an "out" and they don't have to explain anything or figure out anything. They just have to understand what you are saying.

Another example of assumptions. My mother did (does!) this to me all the time:

"Who left the cereal out?"

That assumes that I know the cereal was left out in the first place, that I know who did it, and depending on the tone, that I was the one who did it or that I was responsible for picking up after whoever DID leave it out.

Solution: "Did you leave the cereal out?" or "Do you know who left the cereal out?"

Another pattern that leads to non-answers: passive tone.

"Why wasn't the inventory done?"

That can mean all kinds of things. If I'm the one who is supposed to have done it, ask me directly. If it wasn't me, go ask them.
posted by gjc at 5:28 PM on May 3, 2011 [9 favorites]

Some people prefer to control a conversation rather than be controlled (by being forced to answer your question.) This is not a conscious decision on their parts, but a style that makes them comfortable. They might experience themselves as knowing what you need to hear better than you do. Also, they may have grown up in families in which all conversations have this quality, being more about the subtext that what is being said.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:59 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interrupt them. The mister is an A-Z kind of guy and I usually just want Z. We've mostly worked it out that he tells me Z and if I want more info I'll ask for it.
posted by deborah at 6:23 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is very like a question I've been mulling over asking myself -- with the corollary that someone told once told me that it's because I work with computers. She wasn't entirely joking. She believed there was actually some kind of syndrome which coders got where they became very impatient with human conversation.

I experience the exact same frustration you're talking about. I feel I've acquired a reputation for being abrupt and rude because of it.

Sometimes I end up saying to people "yes, but that's not the answer to the question I just asked" and repeating the question.

Sometimes I reduce the question to a yes-or-no. But even then, sometimes the other person can't deal with it and I've gone so far as to say "the only two possible answers are yes or no, please tell me either yes or no".

Obviously there's a kind of vicious circle where the person may be nervous or embarrassed or not understand, and interrupting or pressuring them doesn't help. I've read the responses here with great interest. When it comes down to it, a great number of people just aren't logical or aren't able to listen to what you're actually saying and they listen to what they think you're saying.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:27 PM on May 3, 2011

Another thing that can contribute is if people have been "trained" but their work environment (or their family of origin) that the question being asked is not actually the question being asked. They're so used to fishing around for the ACTUAL question that they don't answer a straightforward question. I have this problem a lot with students on essay questions who are used to professors and teachers who ask a specific question but actually reward students who address a slightly different question (often under the guise of "going above and beyond," but that's not really what they're doing), so they're used to seeking a "fresh angle" or "unique perspective" instead of ANSWERING THE DAMN QUESTION that I am using to assess their understanding of the material I actually taught.

I also work with an organization that was toxically mismanaged for quite a while, and there are entire departments that just can't answer a straight question because there WAS No such thing as a straight question for so long. It was a combination of incompetence in some managers who didn't know what they were trying to ask and you had to mind-read to figure out what they actually wanted; and of more malicious mismanagement where asking for the wrong thing was either a method of control or of ass-covering.

Anyway, if it seems to happen unusually often at your workplace, it may be that your organization (or a particular subset of it) has "trained" them to respond to the question they THINK you're asking instead of the one you're actually asking. And the only way around is through, in that case; people have to learn to trust that you're actually asking for what you're asking for.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:20 PM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have a tendency to do this, based entirely on wanting you to have all of the informations. Works well for a lot of my professional interactions (i.e. Library patrons generally do want to know more than they ask and it is the only way to get my manager to not focus on minutiae and go off on a tangent) but pisses my husband and my big boss to no end. So until I work out your style, I generally go with the information pie fight technique - messy, but lots of information for you.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:07 AM on May 4, 2011

How do you deal with people that don't answer the questions you ask, and speak too long about semi-unrelated subjects?

You're trolling me, right? You just want me to piss off Jessamyn today, here. Well, more than usual.

Sigh. okay, seriously... my favorite technique for this is pretty much the same as tumid dahlia's, maybe a little slappier:

Me: "Where can I find A?"
Her: (rambling)
Me: "Interesting, but where can I find A?"
Her: (more rambling)
Me: "Hm. I must be explaining myself poorly here. I need to find A? Where is A?"
Her: (further rambling)
Me: "You know what, I really need to leave soon. Can you tell me where A is? Please?"

Same idea.
posted by rokusan at 6:39 AM on May 4, 2011

Another thing that can contribute is if people have been "trained" but their work environment (or their family of origin) that the question being asked is not actually the question being asked.

Sometimes it's that they're used to dealing with people who ask questions but who don't actually know what they need to be asking for. I used to work as a research assistant and frequently got calls from people saying "Dr. PrimaryInvestigator said you would send me a copy of your database." Oh really? Our database containing abstracted medical history for 35,000+ patients, which would have to be deidentified to avoid violating HIPAA? And Dr. PI said I'd send it to you? The same Dr. PI who told me "We never distribute the database and we never allow access to it without a negotiated and signed confidentiality agreement"?

Upon further probing from me, what they were really asking always turned out to be something like "I need a report showing average length of stay for patients with diagnosis A who were admitted between date B and date C."
posted by Lexica at 11:39 AM on May 4, 2011

My wife is a lot like this. I always accuse her of insisting on telling me how the watch was built whenever I ask her the time.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:47 AM on August 19, 2011

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