Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What To Do When He's Boring You

One day Prof. Mark Edmundson encountered a colleague in the hall. He offered a polite greeting: How are you? The colleague, a man whose demeanor was mildly intimidating, responded by launching into a ten-minute lecture about his life. When the colleague finished, he left no time to hear anything about Edmundson and simply took his leave.

Edmundson was flummoxed. He knew that he was being grievously offended, and yet, for fear of offending his interlocutor, he meekly chose to offer a polite good-bye.

Then, Edmundson wrote an extended meditation about everything he wished he had been able to say to his boring, or better, boorish, colleague. Link here.

The meditation raises some interesting and important points, but it does not restore the dignity that was lost in the process of being lectured at.

After all, when someone talks to you as though he is reading from a script, the experience deprives you of your place in a human conversation, and makes you an anonymous member of an audience.

Edmundson is correct to say that a person being talked at suffers an indignity.

Assuming that we have all found ourselves being talked at or lectured at, how can we respond to turn the lecture into a conversation? As Edmundson says, this must be the goal of any intervention.

Surely, the correct approach is to interrupt, but without interrupting. If you cannot get a word in edgewise you will need to find a way to draw attention to yourself without overly offending the person who is lecturing you.

To interrupt politely... that is the challenge. You will need to make a gesture-- like starting to cough or dropping something on the ground-- that breaks the rhythm of the other person's verbal performance.

Or you might single out one point as especially worthy of attention and declare that you would like to write it down immediately, lest you forget it.

Beyond that, you can use some reverse psychology. You can interrupt the narrative flow to exclaim how interesting the story is, how happy you are to hear it, how much you want to hear more of it.

Someone who feels he has to lecture you is assuming that, given the choice, you would not want to listen to everything he has to say.

Try taking the opposite position and say that you are thrilled to hear what he has to say. You can even ask for more detail. The purpose: to throw him off of his script and require him to improvise.

Then, there are the impolite responses that tend to embarrass the other person. Under some limited conditions these are useful. Surely, you have to be on very good terms with a person to know that he will be able to join in the joke when you embarrass him.

When a professor is lecturing you as though you were a student, a captive audience, you can, dare I say, raise your hand.

You can raise your hand and request permission to ask a question, to go to the rest room, or to pick up your child from school.

A final option is this. When your friend finishes the extended narrative of his latest comings and goings, you might say that you had something important to tell him, but now you do not have enough time to do it.

This way he will know that his rambling speechifying has cost him something.

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