One of the most challenging experiences most people have in the workplace is unnecessary repetition. You know, someone says something that makes sense and then reiterates the point. Sometimes they use different words. Sometimes not. And many times, they repeat it over and over again.
I like to believe that people don’t realize they are doing this. They are just passionate about their point and are looking for that “just right” reaction to show that you and everyone else gets it. Aware or not, there is one thing that we all know: being on the receiving end is mentally draining and a waste of time. The only thing that makes this experience worse is when the person talking is your boss.
So, what can you do to save time and brain cells? Here are some ideas on how to broach the topic.
If the person reports directly to you or through your reporting structure, you can take a coaching approach. You want to show appreciation for their willingness to contribute. You want to give constructive feedback that will help them grow in their career. I would open with getting permission to give the feedback:
Mara, I want to give you some feedback on your communication style to help you moving forward. Is that okay?
Securing permission before starting gives your employee time to shift their mindset into that mode. You never know what may be going on inside of someone. If they are not open to feedback, then it’s likely to be ill-received, regardless of its truth or value.
I would then describe the situation and ask if they recognize their behavior:
I don’t know if you see yourself doing this, but there are times when you make a point and, even if people seem to be agreeing, you reiterate the point. Sometimes you’ll use examples or metaphors. Other times, you will just repeat the point, nearly word for word. Have you ever noticed yourself doing this?
If they are going to become either defensive or embarrassed, now is the time. If the first response is either of those, I would immediately reply with:
I don’t want you to feel defensive/embarrassed. I’m only bringing this up because I want you to continue contributing and to do so in a way that’s most helpful to everyone, including you. Ok?
At some point, I would offer a different technique. After all, your employee is repeating themselves because they want to make sure their point is understood. It would be a shame (and ironic) if a valid point is misunderstood and remained so because of this conversation. I would say something like:
I appreciate that you want to make sure your point is understood. Why don’t you try asking if people get the point before reiterating? You could say something like:
“Does that makes sense to everyone?”
“I may not be saying this the right way. Should I try saying it another way?”
“What do you think of that idea?”
The best any of us can do is to offer to clarify our points and hope that others are honest about whether they understand it or not. That’s why I offer up the second option. It’s somewhat self-deprecating and shifts the burden of a lack of understanding to me.
If you report to the person, you can take a managing up approach. It’s always risky to do or say something that feels like criticizing a superior, but if you avoid attacking their individual communication style, you might get there. Again, I would start with permission:
Jeff, do you have a moment? I’d like to talk with you about how we communicate.
It’s a fairly generic opening that should create curiosity, not defensiveness. From here, you can make the conversation about how your manager views you and your responses to them. It’s the classic, “it’s me, not you” approach:
Sometimes when we’re talking, I notice that you will reiterate points either directly or by paraphrasing. There are times when I think I’m indicating that I get your point, but maybe I’m not communicating that effectively. I don’t want you to feel like you have to repeat yourself with me. So, do you feel like either I don’t understand your points; or, don’t effectively communicate that I’ve heard them? Again, I don’t want you to feel like you have to repeat yourself with me, and I want us to be in sync with our communication.
This is a dense statement because I want you to push through any possible feelings of embarrassment or defensiveness as quickly as possible. Doing so is aided by making the situation more about your shared communication style (for which you both are responsible) and less about your manager’s personal style.
In the conversation, you will want to show that you appreciate your manager’s feedback and input, especially if the repetition happens during personal development sessions with you.
You may also make a commitment to ask for clarification if needed. You can take ownership of your understanding, including blame for not understanding something and failing to ask for clarification. You can commit to saying something like “I got it” or “that makes sense to me.” You may even offer to paraphrase back what you heard to ensure clarity.
The implied agreement is that your active confirmation of understanding will be met with less reiteration.
Effective communication is the holy grail of any relationship. When the challenge is rooted in over-communicating, it can be hard to address the situation, despite its problems. In this case, a little more communication up front can reduce a lot of unnecessary repetition in the future. And that’s good for everyone involved.