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June 11, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 24
 
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Exasperation Generators:
Irrelevant Detail

by

When people relate stories at work, what seems important to one person can feel irrelevant to someone else. Being subjected to one irrelevant detail after another can be as exasperating as being told repeatedly to get to the point. How can we find a balance?
Nez Perce ceremonial shirt

A Nez Perce ceremonial shirt. The body of the shirt is made from elk hide. The fringes are deer hide. The shirt is decorated with porcupine quills and Venetian glass beads. It was undoubtedly a treasured possession of its owner.

Around the world, shirt owners have treasured some of their shirts, especially those worn in social gatherings. When disputes arise in these gatherings, and when the parties to the dispute elect to resolve the dispute by physical conflict, it is often customary to remove one's shirt if it is highly valued. This is the origin of the phrase, "Keep your shirt on!", which is a slightly older version of "Chill!" See, for example, Eric Partridge's book, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Order from Amazon.com.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Eye rolling. Doodling. Checking the tweet stream. More eye rolling. More doodling. These are signs of bored exasperation. They can happen in any meeting when the speaker's tale includes details that seem irrelevant to whatever the speaker's point turns out to be, if he or she has a point.

Listeners who feel powerful might interrupt, "What's your point?" or "Tell me why this matters." Storytellers who feel powerful might respond, "Be patient," or "Chill, I'll get there."

Storytellers who feel less powerful might deliver hastily formed summaries that make little sense without the details. The point-demander must then ask for details. A dance of Q&A ensues in which the questions don't elicit the right details, and the answers are meaninglessly skeletal, because the storyteller is intimidated into excessive brevity.

It's all unnecessarily painful for the storyteller, the point-demander, and the lookers-on and listeners-in. Worse, it takes twice as long it should to get the information into the open.

Here are two guidelines for breaking the deadlock — one for storytellers and one for point-demanders.

For storytellers: Master drama-free storytelling
Most storytelling is designed for entertainment. It's dramatic. It's suspenseful. But neither drama nor suspense is helpful in relating complex tales at work.
Listeners need to know from the very start where the tale is heading. Not necessarily in full detail, but at least the basics: "We'll make the deadline, but we'll need more of Phil's time than we thought;" or, "I don't think we can close this deal unless we can get some time with Andrea this afternoon."
Leading with the ending goes against all our storytelling experience. That's why it's so powerful.
For listeners: learn to guide drama-oriented storytellers
Listeners who try Dramatic storytellers feel devalued
by coercion. Coercion often
begets resistance to the
extraction of facts.
to coerce the punch line from a storyteller who doesn't know, understand, or believe in the importance of drama-free storytelling will almost surely fail. Dramatic storytellers feel devalued by coercion. Coercion often begets resistance to the extraction of facts.
At the first sign of a dramatic tale structure, the listener can interrupt with, "I want to hear the whole story, and I want you to start with the end. Tell me, first, how does the story end? Then tell me the story." Do not use the word "point," as in "What's your point?" because it has baggage.
Honoring the storyteller's desire to tell the story usually earns the listener permission to influence the order of telling. And with the drama removed, the urge to spin a long yarn usually expires quietly.

Pressing some storytellers for the point can be problematic if they don't actually know what the point is. It might not have an ending yet, or they might be stumped. Demanding that they get to the point might yield nonsense. Tread carefully. Go to top Top  Next issue: Deciding to Change: Trusting  Next Issue
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See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Benjamin Franklin portrait by Joseph Siffred DuplessisComing August 5: Wacky Words of Wisdom: Part IV
Words of wisdom are pithy sayings that can be valuable so often that we believe them absolutely. Although these sayings are often valuable, they aren't universally valid. Here's Part IV of a growing collection. Available here and by RSS on August 5.
An investigator from the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations interviews a witnessAnd on August 12: When the Answer Isn't the Point: Part I
When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking. Available here and by RSS on August 12.

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