Make my brain un-mute this person
April 27, 2021 1:45 PM   Subscribe

I work closely with a person who talks at high speed and interrupts a lot without communicating much new or useful information; they have a tendency to derail meetings and not notice that they're the only one who has been speaking for several minutes. There's a shared expectation (that they are fully on board with) that everyone else has to help manage this person's tendencies and prevent them from derailing meetings. I have minor social anxiety and have a hard time processing spoken information, so doing this on a daily basis is exhausting for me. After a few years of working with this person, my brain has started coping with this by tuning them out when they speak. This is not good. How do I start hearing them again? What tricks can I use to make myself listen?
posted by sockomatic to Work & Money (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have this problem. Taking a lot of notes is literally the only thing that helps me focus.
posted by knapah at 1:50 PM on April 27 [12 favorites]

I have a similar person in my workspace. The only way I hear them now is when they say my name first. So I won't hear them talk about their real estate, their son, random comments about how annoying the new software is, etc., but I will hear them when they say, "Thella, the new software.... "

There's a shared expectation (that they are fully on board with) that everyone else has to help manage this person's tendencies and prevent them from derailing meetings.

And that's why we have a talking 'stick' (ours is something else that was around that you can hold in your hand). You can only talk in meetings when you have the stick. In our meetings, any other talking gets shut down quick by the word 'stick!'.
posted by Thella at 1:56 PM on April 27 [9 favorites]

You try as much as you can to minimise this person’s face time in meetings and get them to email their bulletpoints through instead. You can’t do it for everything, but you should be able to do it for some. Let’s face it, most of these things are a complete waste of time and can be condensed into a few lines anyway. Your meeting nemesis will probably be quite thankful they get to skip out, I know I would be!
posted by Jubey at 8:28 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]

Interrupting can be useful. In fact it's the only way to engage in active listening with someone who doesn't pause for breath.

Be polite, admit you didn't hear something. But it's a good way to remind yourself to pay attention when your attention flags, and in in this case ideally the interrupts help someone else grab a chance to speak.
posted by mark k at 11:48 PM on April 27

Do you mainly have to listen to them in meetings? If you don't already take notes during meetings, try that, which should help you focus. If someone else takes notes and shares them with everyone, at least you should be able to get the relevant info later. At some jobs, I've used a recorder (or an app on my phone) to record meetings in case I miss something and need to listen back later. It's very easy to transcribe recordings with an app like Otter, if you just want to read through what everyone said rather than re-listening.
posted by pinochiette at 6:45 AM on April 28

I would gently offer that you start by noticing the ways in which you may be minimising or objectifying this person, and then practice bringing empathy and compassion into your thoughts about them. And also for yourself, as it sounds like your thoughts about these circumstances have been impacting you negatively.

I offer this for two reasons:
  1. Your language about this person suggests that you may perceive them as inferior or less than, a nuisance. For example, 'tuning them out' and wanting to 'un-mute' them, as if they were a TV you could turn off and on.
  2. Your framing of your desire for a solution suggests that you don't want to spend much time or focus into resolving this issue. For example, 'make my brain' do X, 'make myself listen' and wanting 'tricks' to get yourself to adopt a new behaviour.
If you want to start learning to listen, there isn't one weird trick for this. Listening to someone (especially someone challenging) takes time and focus, by definition.

Also notice your reaction to the following sentence: this person isn't the cause of your feelings (your thoughts are) and nothing is going to 'make' you change. What feelings come up for you here? And what feelings arise when you think about having to put time and energy into this, knowing that you have social anxiety and processing issues? Is it resentment? Anger? Frustration? What are the thoughts tied to those feelings?

To feel greater peace while you're around this person, it will help greatly to reframe the situation differently (including accepting and taking responsbility for your feelings and how you will change them) and practice thinking new thoughts about them.

One way to start practing new thoughts about them might be to rewrite your question above, but from the vantage point of knowing that they or your coworkers would read it. How would you frame the problem differently then? You don't have to do anything with this rewriting, but in my experience, the act of doing something like this always generates compassion as well as often reveals solutions that were otherwise hidden.

This isn't easy work, but you have good intentions and have made it this far, which 1000% convinces me that you can totally go the rest of the way there. Good luck with everything!
posted by iamkimiam at 9:34 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]

It's completely OK to tune out a rambler. When I am in your shoes, I focus on making sure I notice and respond to keywords like my name or the names of my projects & tools. Interrupting gently and politely can be done, and that's also a good still to develop with these types, unless the office culture is completely against that (which might be true from what you've said).
posted by Ahniya at 10:38 AM on April 28

Response by poster: Since a few people have mentioned note taking: I have to actively listen to this person (in order to kindly & politely interrupt and get us back on track) in meetings, so it's difficult to take notes.

iamkimiam - you have correctly identified that I have a lot of contempt and resentment; I wasn't trying to hide it. Until the pandemic started, I did have a lot of compassion for them and didn't struggle so much with doing emotional labor for them - they're not really in the right environment for their personality type and they frustrate a lot of people, which clearly isn't easy. I'm just...out of spoons, I guess, I just don't want to care any more about their difficulties when there is a lot of other difficult stuff going on in my life and at work (that this person makes more difficult). So I asked this question because I just want some behavioral tricks that can keep me from doing or saying anything I'd regret. I want to look back and know that I'd been kind and constructive even if I couldn't find any more compassion. I will do the exercises you've suggested to see if I can find any more compassion or another perspective; perhaps I just haven't tried hard enough and there's still something left in the tank. So thank you for setting out those exercises so clearly!

Alright, I promise to stop thread-sitting from here on out, and thank you all for taking the time to respond - each of these answers have been helpful to me.
posted by sockomatic at 11:08 AM on April 28

It is honestly OK to acknowledge that you don't have bandwidth to manage other people's emotions.

Being kind does not mean letting them have rent-free space in your brain and a right to your time and attention. They're not your kid.

It also doesn't mean you have to offer advice or anything constructive. 'That sounds rough, I'm so sorry you're going through that! About [insert previous topic]' and similar repeated ad infinitum is a completely acceptable response.

Working to not be contemptuous of them is a good idea! Being contemptuous and resentful is not good for you. But that doesn't mean you need to go back to being their sounding board / emotional babysitter / etc. It's OK to not be invested in a coworker's personal life.

Somethings to consider:

Are you the one running these meetings? These meetings are set up by someone, and it's that person's job to manage them, including handling derails. It's completely OK to just let that person manage them and tune out.

If it has to be you running the meeting, what strategies to request or incentivize more professional behavior from this person could you try? What strategies might your coworkers in these meetings be willing to try as a group?
posted by Ahniya at 11:45 AM on April 28

Response by poster:Since a few people have mentioned note taking: I have to actively listen to this person (in order to kindly & politely interrupt and get us back on track) in meetings, so it's difficult to take notes

For me, I'm basically scribbling down what the person is saying as they're saying it as a means of following along. I sort of mentally review it as I do that and when it seems like we need a redirect, I step in with a comment.

Very aware it might not work for everyone and it's not something I would be able to do as well in person, it's a video call thing for me.
posted by knapah at 1:46 PM on April 28

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