Direct Report Is an Excessive Talker in Meetings? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I have a long-time employee who is very smart, understands his job, and gets things done. He manages a small but powerful team of individual contributors and his people really like and respect him.

We recently invited him to join an elite group in the company to do visioning and strategy work. It was believed his experience would give him valuable perspective.

He is not doing well. He starts talking and we can’t shut him up—and worse, no one can follow what he is saying half the time. He does not seem to notice when people’s eyes glaze over. He talks in circles and repeats himself. It’s almost like once he gets the floor, he is afraid to give it up.

I have never seen this side of him. He is not impressing anyone and I am worried that this opportunity will backfire for him. I am not quite sure how to help him without shutting him down completely.

Stymied

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Dear Stymied,

I am so sorry that your protégé is not rising to the occasion. It is amazing that a person can be so good at so many things and then—well, not at all good at others.

My guess is that he is nervous and inexperienced with these kinds of meetings. As his manager, it is your job to intervene, unfortunately; but better to shut him down completely now than to let him continue to alienate people and possibly do irreparable damage to his reputation.

I think you need to just tell him. Be brief and to the point. You can open the conversation with a warning that you need to share an observation that might be hard to hear. Then tell him exactly what you told me. “You are talking in circles, you are repeating yourself, your points are unclear, and you are not adding value to these meetings. I need you to take a step back and stop speaking in the meetings until you can do it effectively.”

Yes, this is harsh—but you aren’t doing him any favors by letting him ramble on. Ask him to hold off on speaking until he can develop some self-awareness and restraint. That will be the first step. Next, he will have to experiment with participating appropriately.

Most of us are not born being able to do this—it takes experience and lots of practice. I spend literally days in meetings like the ones you describe, and I am often at a loss for how to make points I think will matter, when to make them, and how to be concise and impactful. It is fiendishly difficult. Writing is so much easier because you can back up and delete the ten sentences it took to get you to a clear thought! But it will be a big favor to your rambler if you give him an alternative to try. Perhaps you can work on a signal to share with him when he goes off track?

I recently learned a model that is part of our new Teams program—it’s called Conversational Capacity and it has rocked my world a little bit. I’ve been using it and it’s making a big difference in my own confidence and, I hope, my effectiveness.

The idea behind the Conversational Capacity model (which is nicely laid out by Craig Weber, a contributor to the program, in his book Conversational Capacity) is that when communicating, there is a sweet spot between candor and curiosity.

When using candor, one must:

  • State a clear position
  • Be direct and to the point
  • Explain the thinking that supports your position
  • Use a relaxed tone and body language

In my experience, even excellent communicators have a hard time stating a clear position—most people need to speak their ideas aloud to even have a clue about what they are thinking. I use note taking and mind mapping to try to figure out what my position is so I can be clear. Stating a clear position briefly and then explaining the two or three points that show how you got to the position will hold and keep people’s attention and move the conversation forward.

When practicing curiosity, one must:

  • Ask thoughtful questions
  • Listen attentively
  • Consider other perspectives openly
  • Have an attentive, non-defensive body posture

People can be big contributors to meetings simply by listening well and asking questions that reveal more insights. We don’t all have to have strong positions all the time to add value.

Contributing effectively in big meetings where abstract ideas are being discussed is a skill that can be developed. Self-awareness is the first step—and, uncomfortable as it may be, you will be doing your employee a real favor by helping him take that first step.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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