The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pet Peeve #37

You go to an event. It may be a lecture by some distinguished person or a panel discussion of experts. Perhaps it is a workshop and training. There is usually a question & answer session afterwards or even an open discussion.

I don't know if it's bad luck or what, but it seems every time I go to one of these things there is always somebody from the audience who gets up and proceeds to talk. And then talk. And talk. They go on and on and on. And on and on and on and on.

And I watch with both horror and intense curiosity, like watching an accident happen in slow motion. I just can't find it within me to understand how these people just don't know how inappropriate they are. We didn't all come to this event to listen to them. At one talk I attended recently, one of the keynote speakers was allotted 10 minutes for his piece, and yet an audience member later took at least 5 for his own "presentation"! I know I sound judgmental as hell, but how could they not know how unwelcome this is? The sheer rudeness leaves me dumbfounded. Often, these people are just rambling without a coherent thought, without taking a breath--no specific question or anything. And we all sit there prisoner to them.

The rest of us feel awkward as hell. Tell me how logical this is: It is rude to interrupt an event to give your own uninvited presentation. But yet the audience feels it is even more rude to interrupt that person! I just want to stand up and say, "You need to stop." This is where a good facilitator should step in and temper these folks.

This happens not just in lecture-type settings. I've also been in groups where this same phenomenon occurs: There is a round table discussion among equals, yet one person doesn't hesitate to absolutely dominate the discussion and go off on a 10-minute monologue. Do they not realize what they are doing? Or do they feel their opinions are so important in relation to everyone else's?

You can try to be sympathetic and say that maybe they just don't understand verbal cues or the phenomenon of taking turns in a conversation. Maybe they are innocently babbling. But I will assert that they are masters of these verbal cues. They speak in such a way as to never give anyone a chance to step in. They don't trail off, use concluding words or show hesitation in places where it would be natural for someone else to pick up the conversation. They aren't just naturally exuberant, they are planful to all get out, and they offer no quarter. The only way to step in is to forcibly interrupt them--which they know we won't do. Sheer obliviousness just does not apply. They work hard to maintain their place in the conversation. This is not an accident.


  1. They need to get a blog of their own. Tee-hee!

    Just kidding.

    I hear what you're talking about. I've been in these situations, too. And it's frustrating because sometimes you actually have a question you want to ask, and this moron is wasting all the precious time, babbling away like he has something to say, while you're just waiting for your turn to raise your hand and ask your question...

  2. I sometimes feel uncomfortable listening to radio call-in shows for this same reason. The caller wants to ramble on, when a quick question could have summed up their point. Who I really want to hear is the brilliant guest and their response to the question. What makes it worse, though, is the host for the show often is up tight about the whole process, and I feel like I can sense his blood pressure rising as the caller keeps talking, making it even worse. It would be nice if the host could be totally relaxed about the whole thing, while still keeping a handle on the situation and keeping things flowing.

    I think a major motive for why people do this is they're often searching for how to say what they want to say (though this doesn't excuse the behavior). They'll keep coming back to the same point later and later in the soliloquy, clawing for the narrative which will sufficiently persuade everyone that their point is valid. They force us to watch their brain loop over the same thoughts.

    For people like me who take a while to form their thoughts under pressure, I know this feeling. When I feel passionate about something on occasion it can be hard to resist demanding people's attention until I get the wording convincing enough. (Ideally I have my thoughts together beforehand or else I don't speak up.) In a balanced conversation it's vital to put this urge aside and allow others to speak and be involved.

    Most people learn this from countless interactions with others. Maybe people in unbalanced situations never do, such as business leaders, professors, or those who are just tone deaf to social cues or accustomed to being with people who put up with their long speeches. (I think also nervousness makes it worse, or the thrill of being on the spot.)

  3. Hey, someone tell this guy to keep quiet!

    These people I'm talking about don't seem to be in the slightest bit nervous. I totally understand that some people need to think "out loud" to get their thoughts in order. That's fine. But holding a room full of people hostage who didn't go there to listen to you isn't the right way to do it.

    If I were facilitating, I would specify for people to keep their comments brief and to warn them they will be interrupted if they don't respect that.

    BTW, I thought your radio announcer example was interesting. In my experience, radio announcers are just about the only people who don't seem to mind interrupting callers! In fact, sometimes they don't let people talk enough! But maybe you listen to wimpy radio stations...

  4. In grad school, I had several classes with a brilliant woman who had Asperger's syndrome. The professors had no idea how to keep her from monopolizing the discussion. She obviously wasn't reading the social cues, and we all knew she couldn't help it, but WOW was it ever frustrating for the rest of us. This is just to say it's not always about ego, or because people can't think unless their gums are flapping.

  5. I would advocate for a direct approach. From what I understand, people with Asberger's miss out on social cues, but they know it. So if someone councils them between classes and discusses the situation with them, maybe that would help. They can agree on "signals". But I guess it is hard when you are dealing with grown adults in a class, and it is not really the businesses or the skill of a professor to do that.

    I wonder if someone with Asberger's would be receptive to a linear measure. For example, telling them to keep their comments under 45 seconds. You don't need social cues to understand "45 seconds."

    I think it is just fine for an instructor to interrupt the conversation, explain that we need to hear other voices or cover other material.