Dealing with a talkative leader
It can be tricky to tell people that they talk too much. And in cases where the offender is someone more powerful, like a senior executive or important customer, it can be downright risky. As a result, many “victims” have been suffering in silence for years in meetings that never end or conversations that drain the life out of them.
As the saying goes, a rich man’s jokes are always funny.
How do you put an end to this agony? Here are some ways to counteract over-talking – without getting fired or losing a big account:
+ Diagnose the problem. Many senior leaders are long-winded in some situations and not others. Does your boss tend to deliver an Oscar acceptance speech only when big clients come to the office and meet you in the conference room? Will your biggest client complain for hours about his divorce case over lunch, but not if he stops by the office? Are management monologues more likely to occur when there’s no formal agenda, if you’re on a phone call with no time constraints, or when no one asks any questions?
Take note of when your culprit tends to dominate the conversation so you can change the setting or circumstances. All of these clues can indicate what the core problem is – and help you devise a plan of attack.
+ Identify your approach. There are a few different methods to help someone be more succinct. Before you choose one, consider the payoff to the offender. Perhaps he or she will benefit from a more productive team, greater collaboration, faster results, less frustration, fewer misunderstandings, or a savings of time.
Once you’ve honed in on a benefit, consider how direct you should be. If your target is not good at picking up cues that listeners are getting bored, you may need to be direct. Other excessive talkers may require a more diplomatic approach.
+ Reinforce brevity. Many leaders get better at being clear and concise once they work on it, then fall back into bad habits.
To keep them from losing ground, use some practical techniques to set limits or expectations. A junior employee might say to a boss, “I know your time is valuable. Let’s keep this to five minutes.” Another approach that works: “I’d like talk with you about the Jones account. I’ve prepared a three-bullet-point agenda. Could we discuss each of these items for five minutes?” On a conference call with a client, you might mention early, “I’ve got a hard stop at noon. Is there anything you’d like to tackle right away?”
I’d also suggest embracing brevity in your meetings by using tighter agendas and shortening or eliminating PowerPoint presentations to foster better, more concise conversations. In other words, personally commit to being brief as well to set an example. It can help you spread the challenge of being better by being brief.
(Joe McCormack is founder and Managing Director of the Sheffield Company, an award-winning boutique agency. His recent book “Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less.”)
© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate