You talk too much

Take a breath, listen – and be more effective

Whether it’s coaching, focus groups, interviews, or other information-gathering as part of consulting, I spend a lot of my work time listening to other people. I actually find much about people’s work lives fascinating. But even I have my limits. You see, some people, including CEOs and managers talk too much – much too much. It harms their relationships and compromises their effectiveness as managers, even though it may appear to have short-term benefits.

How it harms

Here are some of the ways that a manager who talks too much hurts his or her work relationships:

When a person goes on and on, even on an important topic, it’s boring. Most people will tune out sooner or later, and anything important that was said gets lost along with the excess talk. When most of the content is boring, listeners tune out of everything.

Managers who talk continuously stifle discussion. Why should anyone bother asking a question or trying to debate when all one gets in return is another (inevitably repetitive) Wall of Blabber that beats the questioner into submission? In this way, the over-talkers deprive themselves of any feedback, and stop getting crucial new input as well.

Managers who talk too much are eventually assumed to have nothing worthwhile to say. At the very least, their Blabbing Averages (percent of words said having valuable content) are relatively poor. Many peers and superiors will not take the time to sift out the pearls of wisdom in the barrage of verbiage. Even short statements are ignored, because they are presumed to be introductions to yet another filibuster.

Managers who talk too much lose allies. Take Peter. At business lunches with his coworkers, Peter would inevitably note that some phrase or idea just mentioned was exactly like what happened in a certain movie. He then subjected his hostage peers to a synopsis of the whole movie. When he was mercifully finished, so was the momentum and focus of the lunch. At a crucial point later in his career, when Peter needed allies, he had none – in part because he had bored his colleagues into avoidance and indifference toward him.

Why is it done

There is no doubt that managers who talk too much don’t like to hear others do so. Why then would someone violate the Golden Rule and subject others to such painful and self-destructive behavior?

It’s a perceived way of control – controlling the agenda, controlling disagreement or criticism from others, and making sure certain topics are never raised. Much like screaming and attacking others, it’s a short term way to gain control. It’s also a shortsighted one. People resent not being heard. They resent the effort it takes to try to sneak in some communication when the manager has to stop to catch her breath.

It shows a fear of never being heard. People who talk too much don’t like being avoided (which they are), so once someone is foolish enough to say “How are you?”, they are off and running. Paradoxically, the more they talk too much, the lonelier they become. Artificial statements of self-awareness such as “to make a long story short …” or ” I hope I’m not boring you by this” are really justifications to keep going. Talking too much alienates old friends and makes it hard to make new ones.

It shows deafness to social cues. When one’s audience is yawning, fiddling with objects, counting the tiles on the ceiling, or snoring, most people would understand the hint to move along or solicit input from others. Overtalkers run right through the cues.

For some, it can come from a well-meaning but mistaken desire to be thorough in one’s answers. For example, the manager is asked about the legality of a certain contract and begins with the history of contract law “just to provide context”. The only useful information in an exchange is that which the listener has the need to hear and the time to listen to at that moment. Overkill kills communication.

What to do about it

If too-talkative managers works for you, you may wish to help them control this self-destructive tendency, one they may not even be aware of. Here are some points you can share:

It’s good to take a break after every few sentences and make sure the other persons are tracking and want you to go on.

Do you know how the worst talk-show callers are those who start with “How are you today? Long-time listener, first-time caller. I just love your show and it’s an honor to speak to you. I’ve been meaning to call for awhile but I’ve been so busy. So anyway, I have three questions and two comments and after that I’ll hang up and take your response over the radio”. Can you see how that would be time-consuming and annoying? The analogy for you is – think about what you need to be heard and get to that part as quickly as possible.

Ask some trusted friends (not subordinates) if you tend to repeat yourself, throw in extraneous asides, or otherwise lard up the key points you are trying to make.

Almost inevitably, if you pay attention to what others are saying, you will learn more than if you are speaking constantly. They in turn will be more attentive to you, will think of you as wiser, will better follow your instructions, and will be more dedicated employees. Talking less is a small price to pay for being a more effective communicator and leader.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared in the April 2011 issues of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.