Five Signs of Excessive Confidence

Five Signs of Excessive Confidence Confidence is generally a respectable and necessary workplace trait.

However, there is a darker side to confidence.

People who display overconfidence, hubris, and narcissism engage in self-destructive behaviors at work because their self-aggrandizement blinds them from their personal judgment and their managerial and leadership performance.

If you believe you may be displaying any of the following signs of excessive confidence, you need some coaching and feedback. Ask a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor for some honest feedback. Work to change your attitude—promptly.

  1. You tend to believe that your ideas are the only ones worth acting on. When others contribute ideas and suggestions, you tend to turn them off while promoting only the ideas that you come up with. You tend to get angry with others for their unwise and impractical suggestions. You are resistant to learning from others or from previous experiences.
  2. You tend to act on solutions without input from others. You believe that it is up to only you to supply new ideas and solve problems. You are convinced that you are the only one who knows as much as necessary to do the right thing. When others summon up ideas and suggest watch-outs, you tend to brush them off with “I know that” statements.
  3. 'What Got You Here Wont Get You There' by Marshall Goldsmith (ISBN 1401301304) You tend to express an opinion on everything—even when the topic of interest is outside your area of expertise. You act as if you’ve accepted the reality that you have to work with less-qualified people who just can’t get the right things the right way (i.e. your way.) If only your opinions were considered and if you had your way, your team and company would do “so much better.”
  4. You tend to defend your mistakes and your failures. You don’t recognize your limitations and the mistakes of your ways. You can’t take help. You are closed off to others’ feedback and suggestions for change.
  5. You tend to externalize blame. You’re often a victim of everyone else’s failures or a victim of external circumstances. You gripe that others just don’t understand you or they aren’t qualified enough to see the wisdom of your ways.

If you can’t recognize and accept the problems related to how your behavior comes across to other people, you may be derailing your managerial and leadership potential.

Idea for Impact: Greatness lies in balancing self-assurance with self-effacement. I recommend leadership coach extraordinaire Marshall Goldsmith‘s outstanding What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Addressing already-successful people, Goldsmith describes how personality traits that bring you initial career success could hold you back from going further!

Rapoport’s Rules to Criticize Someone Constructively

'Intuition Pumps' by Daniel Dennett (ISBN 0393082067) In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel Dennett lists Anatol Rapoport‘s rules of constructive argument and debate:

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view—and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harboring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack. But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

This comports with the following sage advice gentle art of criticizing people effectively:

  • “If you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can. And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them. Otherwise you should keep quiet.”
    Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner (see this article)
  • “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.”
    —Roman Orator Cicero (see this article)
  • “I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.”
    —Entrepreneur Ben Casnocha (see this article)
  • “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
    —Philosopher Anthony Weston in Rulebook for Arguments (see this article)
  • “When you think you can nail someone with your argument, take a breath & see if you can phrase it as a face-saving question.”
    —Career Coach Marty Nemko

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm on the Art of Love and Unselfish Understanding

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm on the Art of Love and Unselfish Understanding

To Listen is to Love

Erich Fromm (1900–80) was a famous German psychoanalyst, philosopher and social critic. His best-selling work, The Art of Loving (1956,) has been translated into more than fifty languages and has sold more than thirty million copies. Fromm argues that one of the deepest human desires is wholeness and unity. Consequently, humans seek to overcome their persistent sense of separateness by finding love, that profound experience of belonging and unity that still makes allowances for individual identity and expression.

According to The Art of Loving, one’s character orientation and social outlook depend greatly on one’s ability to experience meaningful loving relationships with others. The principal responsibility in practicing the art of loving is overcoming one’s narcissism, which Fromm argues is tantamount to cultivating objective reality and embracing the spirit of generosity—doing cosmic good, in other words:

Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it. If it is true, as I have tried to show, that love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.

The Art of Therapy is the Art of Listening

'The Art of Listening' by Erich Fromm (ISBN 0826406548) For Fromm, the first duty of love is paying attention to othersto listen and to understand. His less-popular, but equally noteworthy The Art of Listening (1994) explores listening as an act of love. Based on the imperfectly-edited transcript of a 1974 colloquium on psychoanalysis, The Art of Listening presents Fromm’s therapeutic method of dealing with the emotional distresses of people through listening.

Psychotherapists endeavor to listen non-judgmentally, understand keenly, and frame questions that will assist their patients work out whatever they should do to change their lives. Exploring this nature of communication between the therapist and his patient, Fromm explains that the therapist must offer himself as a thoughtful individual specifically trained in the art of listening. Fromm identifies listening as “an art like the understanding of poetry” and offers six guiding principles for mastering the art of selfless understanding:

  1. The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
  2. Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
  3. He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
  4. He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
  5. The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him—not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
  6. Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.

Even though The Art of Listening focuses on becoming a better shrink through listening, there’s much in this excellent book by way of techniques, dynamics, and mindsets that make for the most favorable listening relationships in life, as in therapy.

Good Questions Encourage Creative Thinking


Thought-provoking questions: potential game changers that are not asked nearly enough

Asking Questions to Encourage Creativity “To think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted,” wrote George F. Kneller (1909–1999), the American academic and pioneer in the field of philosophy of education, in Art and Science of Creativity (1965.) Many people don’t know how to probe their thought processes with questions that encourage creativity.

Consider a brainstorming meeting where a new idea was received with comments and judgments like, “this won’t work,” “we’ve never done it this way,” “the customer won’t like it,” or, “if this is such a great idea, why hasn’t it been done before?” Immediately, a dysfunctional pattern ensues. Defensiveness sets in and the meeting’s participants will resist making any more suggestions and will fail to explore those ideas that were previously made. (One of the key principles of “divergent thinking” for idea-generation is to defer judgment. Neuroscience has suggested that the human prefrontal cortex—the self-monitoring element of the brain—is less active when we’re most creative.)

Creative thinkers ask open-ended, accommodating, and exploratory lead-in questions such as,

  • “I wonder if/why/whether … “
  • “Perhaps we could … “
  • “That would work if/when … “
  • “In what ways can we … .” This favorite of mine was introduced by Edward de Bono, the lateral thinking pioneer and creator of the “Six Thinking Hats” method for group creativity. De Bono called this lead-in question the ‘IWW.’

Instead of declaring “we could never do this,” ask “IWW (in what ways) may people start to do this?” In practical terms, this rephrasing may seem a small thing, but it embodies a leap in unhindered, open-minded thinking. The former seems a categorical rejection; but the latter invites an exploration of possibilities and signals the beginning of the search for solutions to constraints.

Idea for Impact: The ability to pose meaningful—and often deceptively simple questions is the hallmark of creativity

Good Questions Encourage Creative Thinking Often, what leads a creative person to get fresh insight is the quality of questions he/she asks. Questions such as “I wonder if …” and “In what ways can we … ” ignite dialogues in your mind that can lead to creative insights and new discoveries.

The prospect for creative thinking expands when you can reframe restraining statements into creative questions. Consider the following examples:

  • Restraining statement: “We can’t possibly do that.”
    Creative question: “If it were possible, how would you do it?”
  • Restraining statement: “It’ll take too long.”
    Creative question: “If it’s time-consuming, how can I make it short?”
  • Restraining statement: “I can’t talk to her.”
    Creative question: “If you could talk to her, what would you say?”
  • Restraining statement: “I’m too busy to do this.”
    Creative question: “In what ways can we free up some time for you?”

During brainstorming, asking questions in a way that opens participants’ minds to newer possibilities can have a transformative shift in the creative atmosphere. When participants suspend their judgments, everyone in the brainstorming session will feel comfortable enough to explore creative solutions to constraints.

Don’t Be Interesting—Be Interested!

Management Guru Jim Collins’s “Golden Rule”

Jim Collins's 'Golden Rule': Don't Be Interesting---Be Interested! In the December 2005 issue of the now-discontinued Business 2.0 magazine, 30 business visionaries disclosed their “golden rules”—attitudes they swear by more than any other. Jim Collins, the renowned leadership consultant and author of such bestselling management books as Good to Great and Built to Last, recollected a lesson he learned from his mentor, the American intellectual and public servant John W. Gardner:

One day early in my faculty teaching career, John Gardner sat me down. “It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting,” he said. “Why don’t you invest more time being interested?”

If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet—their lives, their history, their story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What have they learned? By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell.

I can’t say that I live this rule perfectly. When tired, I find that I spend more time trying to be interesting than exercising the discipline of asking genuine questions. But whenever I remember Gardner’s golden rule—whenever I come at any situation with an interested and curious mind—life becomes much more interesting for everyone at the table.

The Technique to Become the Most Interesting Person in the Room is to Find Others Interesting

Becoming likeable requires creating lasting impressions in others by becoming genuinely interested in them In the conduct of life, people tend to focus more on becoming more interesting—i.e., impressing others with their personae and their stories. While trying to become more interesting is a worthwhile pursuit, it is certainly not everything in becoming accepted and well-liked. Becoming likeable requires creating lasting impressions in others by becoming genuinely interested in them.

John Gardner’s advice (via Jim Collins) echoes self-improvement pioneer Dale Carnegie’s legendary advice that the ticket to one’s success in life is one’s ability to make others feel good about themselves. In his masterful manual on people skills, How to Win Friends & Influence People, Carnegie writes, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

It is a common fallacy to assume that you must just be an interesting person to get people to like you. Observe this human tendency in the next networking meeting or social gathering you attend. Most people tend to be absorbed in just one thing: being interesting themselves—blabbing “I did this … I did that … I like this … I’ve been there” and offering bits of information that nobody else but them really cares about.

How to Build a Bit of Intimacy, Even in a Brief Conversation

Become genuinely interested in others and make them like you Making others like you amounts to making them feel special about themselves—making them feel that you really “get” them. The next time you meet someone new at a social setting, try this easy technique to be more interested.

  • The key to become absorbed in a conversation is to focus on being curious about others. So, tell yourself repetitively, “This seems to the most interesting person in the world. Let me discover why.” Look for opportunities to connect.
  • When you meet someone new, make eye contact and smile. Introduce yourself with a simple “Hi, my name is Joanna Kovaleski. I am Megan’s real estate agent.”
  • Pay attention and make them feel like they are the only people in the room.
  • Ask a question or two about the person before talking about yourself. “How do you know Megan and Eric?” “Is this your first time in Chicago?” As I’ve written previously, chatting with somebody in socializing situations should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest. These prospects will all be missed if your initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations such as “What do you do for a living?”
  • Ask a follow-up question based on what they have just said. Try to understand who they are and why they are there. Learn about their interests and hobbies.
  • Say more about yourself. Use what you’ve just learned about the other person so far to selectively highlight anything you have in common.
  • Then, ask one question to bring the focus back to the other person.
  • People love to talk about themselves; so, make them. Everyone’s got a story to tell.
  • Don’t talk too much or too little. Try taking your focus off yourself.

Idea for Impact: Become Genuinely Interested in Others and Make Them Like You

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) To be interested in other people—and consequently get them interested in you—is a significant social skill you must develop and hone. But don’t feign. As Carnegie cautions in How to Win Friends & Influence People, “The principles … will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks; I am talking about a new way of life.”

The following books have helped me with improve my socializing skills. Perhaps you’ll find them useful too.

Never Criticize Little, Trivial Faults

Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoons Charles M Schwab and Andrew Carnegie

The American steel magnate Charles M Schwab (1862–1939,) was a protege of the steel baron-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919.) During the course of a long and successful career, Schwab built his Bethlehem Steel Corporation into America’s second largest steel producer and one of the world’s most prominent businesses.

'Be hearty in approbation and lavish in your praise' - Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoon Charles M Schwab

Don’t be “bothered with the finicky little things that trouble so many people.”

Charles M Schwab started his career as a laborer in Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works. Thanks to his exceptional ability to cozy up to people and facilitate congenial working relationships, Schwab rapidly rose up the ranks of the Carnegie steel empire.

By the age of 19, Schwab was assistant manager of the steel factory. When an accident killed the factory superintendent in 1887, Andrew Carnegie appointed the 25-year-old Schwab as the manager of the Thomson Works. At 35, Schwab became president of the Carnegie Steel Company at an annual compensation exceeding $1 million (worth $30 million today.)

In an essay titled “My 20,000 Partners” in the 19-Dec-1916 issue of The American Magazine, Schwab shared a management lesson he learned from his mentor Andrew Carnegie:

Mr. Carnegie’s personality would enthuse anybody who worked for him. He had the broad views of a really big man. He was not bothered with the finicky little things that trouble so many people. When he made me manager, Mr. Carnegie said, “Now, boy, you will see a good many things which you mustn’t notice. Don’t blame your men for little, trivial faults. If you do you will dishearten them.

When I want to find fault with my men I say nothing when I go through their departments. If I were satisfied I would praise them. My silence hurts them more than anything else in the world, and it doesn’t give offense. It makes them think and work harder. Many men fail because they do not see the importance of being kind and courteous to the men under them. Kindness to everybody always pays for itself. And, besides, it is a pleasure to be kind. I have seen men lose important positions, or their reputations—which are more important than any position—by little careless discourtesies to men whom they did not think it was worthwhile to be kind to.

'Don't blame your men for little, trivial faults' - Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoon Andrew Carnegie

“Be hearty in approbation and lavish in your praise”

Schwab’s excellent people skills and management methods are extolled in How to Win Friends & Influence People, Dale Carnegie‘s masterful guidebook on people skills. Dale Carnegie quotes Schwab:

I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people, the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement.

There is nothing else that so kills the ambitions of a person as criticisms from superiors. I never criticize any-one. I believe in giving a person incentive to work. So I am anxious to praise but loath to find fault. If I like anything, I am hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.

I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.

Idea for Impact: People who cannot tolerate others’ shortcomings are at a marked disadvantage in life.

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) The older you’ll get, the more you’ll appreciate the wisdom of enduring the negative emotions— skepticism, disapproval, anger, contempt, and hostility—that stem from others’ behaviors.

One of the keys to effective interpersonal skills is to know when and how to give feedback. Commend whenever you can, criticize when you absolutely must.

Remember, criticism can swiftly erode away positive feelings. Don’t nit-pick. Don’t get caught up in trivial peculiarities.

Management by Walking Around the Frontlines [Lessons from ‘The HP Way’]

President Abraham Lincoln visiting the Union Army troops during American Civil War In the early part of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln regularly met the Union Army troops and made informal inquiries of their preparedness.

Decades later, on the eve of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Dwight Eisenhower paid a visit to American and British paratroopers who were preparing to go into battle. As I described in two previous articles (here and here,) the Normandy invasion’s success was wholly dependent on the weather across the English Channel, something Eisenhower could not control. Eisenhower famously told his driver “I hope to God I’m right” about his wager with the weather in launching the Allied attack.

These two leaders were carrying out what is now called Management by Walking Around (MBWA.)

Without MBWA, managers rarely emerge from their offices-turned-fortresses

General Eisenhower addressing American paratroopers on 5-June-1944 before the Battle of Normandy MBWA is a widespread management technique in which managers make frequent, unscheduled, learning-oriented visits to their organization’s frontlines. Managers interact directly with frontline employees, observe their work, solicit their opinions, seek ideas for improvement, and work directly with the frontline to identify and resolve problems.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) was the first company to adopt MBWA as a formal management technique. In The HP Way (1995,) co-founder David Packard attributes much of the success of his company’s remarkably employee-oriented culture to managers’ good listening skills, employees’ enthusiastic participation, and an environment where employees feel comfortable raising concerns—all cultural attributes directly engendered by MBWA.

Fostering open two-way communication

The American quality management pioneer Edwards Deming (1900–1993) once wrote of MBWA, “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

Acclaimed leadership guru Tom Peters popularized MBWA in his bestsellers In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence. Even today, Peters advocates that leaders and managers use MBWA to not only personally spread the company’s values to the frontline but also to accelerate decision-making by helping employees on the spot.

Sam Walton with Walmart's Frontline Employees » Management by Walking Around

Learning about problems and concerns at firsthand

'The HP Way' by David Packard (ISBN 0060845791) MBWA is comparable to the Toyota Production System‘s concept of gemba walks” where managers go to the location where work is performed, observe the process, and talk to the employees. By enabling managers to see problems in context, organizations can better understand a problem, its causes, and its negative impact. Gemba (Japanese for “the real place”) thus facilitates active problem solving.

Because of MBWA, managers’ presence on the frontlines sends a visible signal that a company’s management connects with the realities of the frontline and that leadership is serious about listening to employees’ opinions and resolving problems. MBWA thus complements an organization’s open-door management policy.

Idea for Impact: Practice MBWA

Employees will appreciate that their managers and leaders are open-minded and will sincerely listen to what employees have to say.

Don’t use MBWA to spy on employees or interfere unnecessarily with their work.

How to Handle Employees who Moonlight

How to Handle Employees who Moonlight Moonlighting—working a part-time job or having a business “on the side”—can pose a challenge for employers. Moonlighting can lead to divided allegiance, conflicts of interest, and poor job performance.

Employers expect employees to be present and prompt at their jobs. If employees are hustling to attend to multiple commitments, fatigue, lack of sleep, poor attentiveness, tardiness, and absenteeism can become problems. When an employees’ moonlighting hurts their on-the-job performance, employers are within their rights to discipline and terminate employees. For these reasons, some employers limit or prohibit moonlighting.

The proactive approach to moonlighting

One way to head off moonlighting problems is to have a policy about part-time jobs and running side businesses. Institute a policy that sets performance expectations, protects proprietary information, avoids conflicts of interest, and averts divided allegiance. Your moonlighting policy cannot regulate employees’ off-duty activities or prohibit employees from having other jobs. But it may expect employees to disclose and get approval for supplementary employment. A moonlighting policy may also require senior managers and leaders to disclose directorships and financial interests in other companies.

Tell employees they can’t mix their business with your company’s business

If you find an employee doing side work for pay from your office, tell him that this is a clear violation of office expectations; he should conduct no business other than your company’s during work hours. Tell your employee, “You can’t mix your other business with our business. Your time at this job should be exclusively for this job. Our company resources are for our company’s purposes only.”

If your employee gets occasional calls that he needs to attend to, reiterate the above expectation and encourage him to answer the calls during break time and away from his desk. Encourage him to respond to those calls with “I’m at my other job right now. Let me call you back later.”

Discourage employees from selling stuff to other employees

Problems from employees moonlighting in part-time jobs and running side businesses If you find an employee selling stuff to other employees or soliciting outside business during paid working time, discourage it as soon as you discover it. Explain how this interferes with your office’s work.

Discourage your employees from turning your office into a showroom and making customers of other employees. Selling merchandise could impair work relationships when a buyer is unhappy with a product or service. Worse yet, side-businesses can easily grow unmanageable in case of network marketing programs (e.g. Amway, Herbalife) that encourage upselling or getting others involved as salespeople.

Employees can involve their colleagues in side-businesses outside your office, as long as such activities don’t harm at-work relationships.

Idea for Impact: Managers can forestall many employee problems by being proactive and setting expectations

In general, moonlighting is neither unethical nor illegal. It may become an issue when the employer specifically prohibits it and/or where the other job is with a competitor, supplier, or customer and is therefore a potential conflict of interest. The only time you really need to challenge an employee’s moonlighting is when it can affect your business in terms of conflicts of interest and deficient work performance.

Bear in mind: don’t overlook or disregard such concerns until they become major problems.

Stop asking, “What do you do for a living?”

How to Start a Good Conversation

I despise being asked “What do you do for a living?” when I first meet someone.

I didn’t like being asked “What does your dad do?” while growing up in India.

Many people routinely use this question as a conversation-starter with strangers. It could be argued that they intend to inoffensively learn of somebody’s area of expertise or interests and then engage them in a meaningful chat.

Stop asking 'What do you do for a living?' about indirectly sizing up people However, this question is often about indirectly sizing up the other’s socioeconomic status. People may be assessing, “How valuable are you? How much money do you make? What is your social status? What is your financial status? Are you richer, smarter, and more powerful than I am? Am I above you or below you in the socioeconomic ladder? Are you worth my time?”

Look, we live in a judgmental world where a person’s identity is at first ascertained by what he or she does for a living. Nevertheless, when becoming acquainted with someone in an informal setting, conversations shouldn’t be about inquiring after the other’s livelihood or about scrutinizing the other’s standing in society.

Chatting with somebody in “socializing situations” should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest—prospects that will all be missed if the initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations.

So, let’s try to make a conversation without seeking to interrogate one another.

If you’re looking for clues to a person’s passions or areas of interest to engage them in conversation, start with simple questions such as “how do you know Maria and Joe,” “is this your first time in Chicago,” or “what does your name mean?” Wait for personal details to flow into the conversation naturally. Or, wait further into the conversation before popping the “what do you do?” question.

How to Stop Rambling

How to Stop Rambling Poster: Keep Rambling and Annoy All

Some people are natural ramblers. Others are prone to ramble when they feel impassioned about a topic and have a propensity for going off on tangents. Others tend to blather because they feel jumpy and insecure when asked to talk about something they don’t totally understand. Still others feel compelled to talk just to make themselves heard or when they don’t want to lose the floor.

Whatever the reason you may ramble, here are some ideas to help you be short and clearer in your conversations with others.

Follow the “Traffic Light Rule”

Career coach Marty Nemko offers a “Traffic Light” rule of thumb to keep conversations short:

  • During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green: your listener is probably paying attention.
  • During the second 30 seconds, your light is yellow—your listener may be starting to wish you’d finish.
  • After the one-minute mark, your light is red: Yes, there are rare times you should “run a red light:” when your listener is obviously fully engaged in your missive. But usually, when an utterance exceeds one minute, with each passing second, you increase the risk of boring your listener and having them think of you as a chatterbox, windbag, or blowhard.

How to be Concise and Retain your Audience’s Interest

If you have nothing to say, say nothing at all. Don’t skirt around the topic, “fake the funk,” or seem indecisive. Simply say, “I am not educated about this topic.” If you’re asked something you should know about but don’t, it’s acceptable to say, “I don’t know, let me get back to you.” Do your research and follow-up with the audience.

If you have lots to say about something,

  • First take a few moments to think about what you want to say and structure your answer. Pausing before you give an answer will make you look more thoughtful and intelligent than if you crudely blurt out an unstructured response as soon as a question is posed. If necessary, buy some time: “Give me a moment to gather my thoughts.”
  • Once you’ve thought of your answer, simply state it. Do not add new details as you speak. Stick to your planned details and structure; you will be able to provide a consistent, concise, and well-reasoned answer.
  • Avoid littering your conversation with irrelevant or trivial details. Often, it’s more important to be articulate than accurate. Keep your sentences brief and to the point. Don’t wander from your point.
  • If you have more to say than you can say in a minute or two, realize that even though your audience may be interested in listening to everything you have to say, their attention may quickly dissolve into disinterest. Limit yourself to a minute or two and use that brief time to provide the most important points or a summary. Then ask, “Would you like me to expand?”

Sometimes you can defer a question by saying, “I’d be interested in what others think about this.” However, you will look devious if you use this technique too often.

Prepare and rehearse. Before attending a meeting, event, or gathering, think about the likely topics people may want to converse with you about. Think about the message you want to get across and rehearse your responses.