One such situation is when people are ‘circling’, that is, repeating the same information again and again and not adding anything new. If you decide to do the ‘polite’ thing and wait for the speaker to finish, you might wait a long time. Even if you had all that time, which you probably don’t, it is hard to focus when people are repeating.
‘Circling’ is a situation where it is fine to interrupt, provided you do it skillfully. The skillfulness will make the difference between a helpful interruption and a discourteous one. One way I do this is to first say the person’s name as a way of creating a pause in the conversation. I might say, “Jack”; if that doesn’t result in the speaker stopping, I would repeat “Jack” until the speaker stops, wondering why I am calling his name.
At this point one needs to be discerning. One of the reasons people ‘circle’ is that they need to have what they said Acknowledged. That is, they need to know that they have been heard, that you have listened and understood what they said. The need for Acknowledgement is especially strong when emotions are present.
In such situations, after I say the speaker’s name and the speaking stops, I would Acknowledge what has been said and see what happens. The simplest way to acknowledge is to Paraphrase, which is to tell people, in your own words, what you understood they said. Often, such an Acknowledgement will let the speaker feel understood and able to focus more clearly.
Another reason people repeat themselves is because of one added point they wish to make. When I think that may be the case (and have already Acknowledged), I would again Interrupt by calling their name, and then say: “I want to stay focused with you; is there something new that you wish to add (or: that has not yet been said)?” This question allows the speaker to make that one point without having to repeat the entire story.
So when you hear people ‘circling’, first ask yourself if you have acknowledged. If you have, ask them any of the questions above to help focus the conversation.
As with everything else in communication, your state of mind and tone of voice are crucial. If people sense you are irritated with them, then no matter what words you use the relationship has been damaged. If they sense you are sincerely trying to understand them and use their time and yours more effectively, they will appreciate both your intent and your skillfulness.
When people are ‘circling’ (that is, repeating the same thing again and again):
Have you acknowledged what they are saying by Paraphrasing?
If you have acknowledged, Interrupt by saying their name until the speaking stops.
Explain why you are Interrupting (“I want to understand you”; “I am having difficulty focusing”; or something to that effect)
And then make your request (“Can you focus me on the key point?”; “Is there something that has not been said that you wish to add?” etc.)
Do these steps and watch the magic happen!
(c) 2012 Bernard Uzi Weingarten
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