How to Coach a Blowhard
A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com .
Ever dread getting stuck in a meeting with someone because they don’t know how to shut up?
Bluntly, it’s the bane of most groups trying to operate effectively – the sandbagging blowhard who either has to be the smartest person in the room, or who, more prosaically, just loves the sound of their own voice.
My personal preference with people like this is to simply confront them with what they’re doing and ask them to stop it – we’re all adults, after all, and managing our weaknesses is a reasonable expectation of any business leader.
Sometimes, however, that’s not possible, whether because they’re more senior to us, or our culture doesn’t allow it, or, more simply, they just nod and continue on their own sweet, rambling, irritating way.
If you’re in that position, here are 5 ways to change the behaviors of an overly-loquacious team member:
1. Don’t let them get started.The easiest way to prevent a blowhard from sandbagging a meeting is, of course, not to let them get started in the first place.
You won’t be able to exclude them from the discussion altogether (nor do you want to – we’re trying to effect behavioral change here, not muzzle the individual concerned), but you can defer the point at which they pull the meeting off-track.
Call on others to begin with; use an ‘I’ll-get-to-you-in-a-minute’ raised finger when they first try to get into the discussion; be overt – “Janet, I know you want to get in here, but we don’t have time right now.”
Remember, the goal isn’t to stifle your colleague – it’s to corral their disruptive behavior with firm boundaries, and to send clear signals regarding the behavioral change you want to see.
2. Once they start, don’t interrupt. Long-winded executives can’t be kept quiet for long – after all, talking is important to their self-esteem – so at some point the dam is gonna burst, no matter how hard you’ve been holding it back.
Once they’ve started, however, the key point is not to interrupt. At all. And so far as you can, don’t permit anyone else to interrupt them either. The reason for this is two-fold:
First, we almost always interrupt to argue against some irritating, irrelevant, esoteric point made by our blustering colleague that isn’t central to the core discussion – and bingo, the meeting is derailed.
Second, interrupting blowhards only validates (to them) their lengthy diatribes – ‘Hey, I’m the only one around here generating valuable discussion!‘ Only by letting them blow themselves out – waiting, however long it takes, until they literally run out of things to say, is essential. Only by letting them stumble to a halting close (over and over agin) will they become self-aware of what they’re doing.
3. Listen with neutral reaction.
Painful as it is, the single most important way to effect behavioral change in a blowhard is to maintain a completely neutral response while they’re talking. No rolling your eyes, no folding arms, glancing at your watch or multi-tasking. But no encouragement either – don’t nod, smile, or cock your head to show interest.
Instead, maintain a level, neutral expression, and hold eye (or near-eye) contact during the whole time they’re talking. Why? Because giving any emotive feedback at all prolongs their endless monologue by validating and feeding the activity – you’re engaging with the blowhard (positively or negatively), and that’s all they need as encouragement to continue.
Maintaining an expressionless, neutral expression drains engagement without confrontation, and like sucking oxygen from a fire it’ll extinguish the droning monologue much quicker.
4. Respond only to the core issue.
Once they’ve run out of steam, it’s essential not to respond to everything your can’t-stop-talking colleague has said. No matter how contentious, annoying or downright wrong much of what they said may be, restrict yourself only to any comments that were (a) relevant to them topic under discussion, and (b) helpful in moving the discussion forward.
If there were no such comments (a not uncommon experience with blowhards), then simply thank them for their comments and move on – again, with a neutral emotive expression.
5. Respond inversely to their contributions.
As a simple rule, the longer your colleague talks, the shorter your response should be. Conversely, when they do manage to control themselves and contribute in a concise manner, you can (and should) respond in more depth, both emotionally and verbally.
A 10-minute ramble should receive little more than an emotionally neutral ‘thank-you’, while a short (for them) 2-minute contribution should be rewarded with a more expansive, emotionally positive response.
6. Don’t let them summarize.
Most discussions end with a brief ’round-the-table’ summary. This isn’t a good point at which to open the floor again to your agenda-sandbagging colleague. Instead, pass them by, pointing out that the group has already heard their views in depth (almost certainly an understatement).
Try these simple steps next time you have a colleague who doesn’t know how to stop talking. A few iterations, and I guarantee you’ll begin to see some helpful behavior modification.
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