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I have coworkers who are really eager to agree with what you say, but don't really listen. I can be explaining how something works, or instructing them on certain procedures, and they will quickly nod their head, and say "Yep, uh huh, uh huh" before I have finished my sentence, and sometimes they end up missing the point entirely.

When speaking of this behavior candidly among my friends, I refer to it as "bobblehead syndrome" not to be derogatory, but because I don't know what to call it.

I'm not (I don't think) aggressive when approaching coworkers, and they have no reason to be afraid of me (I'm not their direct supervisor or boss). How can I be more inviting to them so that they are paying attention and listening and not "bobbleheading"?

I spent time with one such coworker away from work (not intimate) and she behaved completely different out of the office - she listened, and spoke with feeling and understanding the whole time. This makes me think it's a type A/B thing, or a personality trait. Is there anything I can do to make a coworker more comfortable when talking to them?

How can I communicate better with a co-worker who is not a good listener? Is a great question, but deals with someone who feel their coworker never listens to them. My coworker is trying to listen, but is being overly anxious and more eager to agree with me mid-sentence than to ask questions about what they don't understand.

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what is the actual problem? Is it that you feel you are being dismissed and ignored, or do things go wrong later because they weren't listening? –  Kate Gregory May 29 at 18:30
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Particularly if it's a procedural thing, follow up with an email (or other form of written communication). –  mkennedy May 29 at 19:49

6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

How can I be more inviting to them so that they are paying attention and listening and not "bobbleheading"?

Any successful communication requires at least two parts - the speaker, and the listener. Sometimes, we simply need to take a step back, stop talking, and start listening.

If you sense that you aren't actually being heard

  • Stop lecturing
  • Ask "Does that (ie, what you just said) make sense?"
  • Ask them to tell you what they understand

You will learn if the communication was effective or not.

Then, you can adjust your communication accordingly.

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For many people, taking in a lot of information just with the spoken word is hard. If you're going to give me directions to the offsite meeting, after three or four turns or street names, I've forgotten the stuff from the beginning. I'll take notes, or I'll ask you to draw me a map or email me the directions. It's possible the people you're talking to just can't hold your simple 17-step procedure in their heads. In that case, starting the conversation by letting them know you're going to give them instructions may help. You could even go so far as to say "do you want to make a few notes? There are a lot of steps."

The other possibility is that you've given them written instructions and for some reason want to repeat the information out loud. In that case, try to say less - only talk about the steps that are different from usual, or just stand there while they read, and then talk about whatever you want to talk about.

Once you feel tuned out, stop talking. You can cover it by asking a question like "does that make sense?" or "is that fair?" but will probably get a noncommittal answer. Try just stopping and seeing what they do or say. They may, for example, have had a question a few sentences ago and are putting all their cognitive effort into keeping the question at the front of their mind. After they ask and you answer, rewind to the point where you think the question probably occurred to them, because there's a good chance they didn't retain anything after that point.

Think about how you structure the instructions or information you're going to give them. There's an old maxim about teaching or presenting:

  • tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em
  • tell 'em
  • tell 'em what you told 'em

So you might say

There are four things to do for this. First, stop all the services whose names start XFD. Second, copy the new files using the list I sent yesterday. Third, start all the services you stopped. Fourth, load the home page in a browser. Are you comfortable with all four steps?

In addition to the tell-em-tell-em-tell-em patter, this uses First, Second, Third, Fourth to help both you and your colleague keep your place in the list, and it includes a question (one with a summary hidden in it) to provide a place for more meaningful feedback than head-nodding. This sort of structure should make things easier to follow.

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If I don't think someone is actually paying attention, I ask them leading questions or ask them to tell me what they are planning to do based on our discussion

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Could you work in questions rather than instructions in your work conversations? From How to Win Friends and Influence People that may be useful here, particularly #4:

Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment

  1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  2. Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.
  3. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  4. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  5. Let the other person save face.
  6. Praise every improvement.
  7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  8. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
  9. Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest.
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@David, it's from the 1920s so copyright has expired. A quick google search will find you a PDF version or three. –  jmac May 30 at 1:47

As Kate Gregory says, let the people take notes or even better I tend to bring short sketches and explain on them, or even better draw them interactive with the person, so you can easier adjust if there are understanding problems.

The important part is to tell the person first where you are now and where you want to get with your idea/task. After that they can easier follow the single instructions. Like saying the train station is up there on the hill little left of the church tower and your best way to get there is "list of 10 turns".

Also make sure they know they can come back to you anytime and ask questions instead of spending hours to try to understand what you said. Put it really in that context, you don't need to be a nice a guy, it is just better for the company if communication works efficient and nobody is afraid of you.

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There are three things I keep in mind when communicating information to folks (be it internally, or to a customer):

  1. Make sure they understand why you're talking
  2. Don't be an alligator
  3. Figure out how they learn

Make sure they understand why

"If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own." - Henry Ford

To get someone's attention, make sure that they know why they need to give you their attention. Are you lecturing for you, or for them? If you can explain why they should pay attention, they're more likely to care. How will paying attention help them?

Don't be an alligator

All Mouth, No Ears

Alligators are all mouth, no ears. Don't be an alligator, be sure that when you are communicating with someone, you're listening too. When people are being lectured at they get bored quickly, and just want the torture to end as soon as possible. And often that means just agreeing so that the person will shut up.

Figure out how they learn

People learn differently, and so you should figure out what is working and adapt to their style. Usually people break down learning styles in to three types:

  1. Visual (Seeing)
  2. Auditory (Hearing)
  3. Kinesthetic (Doing)

If you are focusing on a single type of style, branch out and give a shot at the ones you don't use as much. Mix up all types and see which way the person reacts to best. And then cater your instructions to the person you're trying to teach.

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