181

It happens occasionally, that I come across something I don't know how to do, and I need someone to show me. So I ask Bob for help, because Bob knows this stuff, and he comes over and starts explaining to me. He talks for a couple of minutes, gives me an example or two, and I say "Ah, I see - ok, I've got it, thanks for your help".

Then Bob keeps talking. And talking. And talking. He spends several minutes continuing to explain to me, even after I already understand it. I've tried saying "Ok, I understand now, thanks for your help", but this is apparently not clear to him, and I don't want to waste several minutes sitting there bored while he talks.

How do I get the point across that I want him to stop talking and let me get on with it, without being rude about it? I don't want to offend him, or make him not want to help in the future.

Please answer in the context of western culture - this is specific to england/america, and I know that definitions of "rudeness" varies from place to place.

  • 40
    Just a note, culture in England vs America may superficially appear similar, but we actually have very different cultures, and IMO the answer to this question is in fact rather different between the two. So it would be better if you specified one locale. – Lightness Races in Orbit Apr 27 '16 at 23:10
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    note that sometimes even if you think you understand the topic, Bob may want to warn you about some exceptions/edge cases or nice shortcuts (tips & tricks) that would save you some time – bubakazouba Apr 28 '16 at 0:48
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    You have just asked a community of "Bobs" :) – Captain Hypertext Apr 28 '16 at 13:10
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    My dad was one of these guys. He was a very smart, but sad and lonely man. He just needs a hug once in awhile. And these personal contacts are his substitute for that, sigh. – zipzit Apr 28 '16 at 17:41
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    Maybe Bob has had a significant amount of experience with new guys who think they understand but only understand superficially. Maybe Bob is a little tired of being bugged 3 times about the same thing. Maybe Bob is keenly aware that you want him to stop, but wants to make this a one stop question. It is possible I am a Bob. – Fadecomic Apr 29 '16 at 14:35

14 Answers 14

133

As this is about politeness, manners, and social conventions, details will differ a lot depending on:

  • the social context (such as workplace conventions)
  • the person you are talking to
  • yourself, and what you feel comfortable with

That said, I think there is nothing wrong with politely saying that you have enough information. Something like

Thank you, you explained quite well what I needed to know. I don't want to bother you longer than necessary.

Or, more informally:

Hey, it's cool to know how much is possible, but I need some time to digest the information. Let me think over this, and I'll get back to you if I have questions. Thank you for taking the time to explain this.

However, keep in mind that these are examples. You must find a wording that works for you, and in your situation - and that may be even more polite and cautious, or very blunt.

The key points are:

  • Make it clear that you have heard enough.
  • Say thank you.

Finally, the specific problem in your case may be that Bob simply does not stop talking. In that case, wait for a pause, and if there is none, do not be ashamed to interrupt him. That may feel rude at first, but talking at length without feedback from the other side is arguably a bit rude too, so don't be embarrassed.

This is a technique most reporters master very well. Take just about any radio/television interview, and you will see the reporter deftly, but clearly, interrupting someone who is talking for too long.

  • 7
    It's very cultural. For example, where I'm from, it's not considered impolite to "interrupt" somebody by e.g. raising your hand. It gives the other party an opportunity to finish a sentence / thought, which makes the interruption a lot less annoying for both parties. Of course, if he goes on talking for too long, you're going to speak up anyway, but then it's them who's impolite :D – Luaan Apr 27 '16 at 9:09
  • You obviously watch different politics shows to what I do ... Andrew Neil or Jeremy Paxman interrupting somoene is not deft, it is more like "That isn't the question I asked, it is not the subject of my interview, I ask the questions and you answer them." :) – Calchas Apr 27 '16 at 13:02
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    Those two examples are really too apologetic and self-deprecating for my tastes. – Lightness Races in Orbit Apr 27 '16 at 23:10
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit: As I wrote, it all depends on the various contexts. I was just trying to give examples, and tried to err on the "safe side". Edited. – sleske Apr 28 '16 at 6:41
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    Depending on the kind of relationship you have with work colleagues - I've used "shhh, I've got it. If you carry on I'll get confused." And then bought him a pint after work. – Darren Bartrup-Cook Apr 29 '16 at 16:26
197
+50

I'm going to take a completely different tack than the existing answers. I'm going to ask you to take a step back and think about whether it's a good idea to cut Bob off.

  1. Consider that Bob may still be talking because he thinks you don't understand as well as you think you do. I find it really frustrating when I'm trying to explain something to someone and I know they've already quit listening. This is especially true when I know they'll do work on the back of their incomplete understanding that I'll be responsible for fixing, either through trying yet again to explain the concept or to just go in and do it the right way.
  2. Listening for however long Bob wants to talk is a reasonable "price" for the information you didn't have and couldn't get. You're the one who came to Bob for information. How rude is it that you are "sitting there bored" while he's giving you what you asked for? Learn to slow down and have some patience and show some appreciation for Bob's expertise by listening attentively.
  3. There's more to your job than just the official requirement. You can go to Bob because you have a relationship where he's willing to help you. Part of your job is to maintain good relationships so that people are happy to work with you. This one is also hard for me, but learn to relax a little and chew the fat, rather than keeping your nose to the grindstone all the time. Believe it or not, the people who spend more time socializing (and are liked) tend to be kept at layoff time, and the productive, nose-to-the-grindstone types are let go, because no one cares on an emotional level if they ever see them again.

So, in short, I think you should let Bob talk in the interest of maintaining good relations. As a nice side bonus, you may understand the things he's trying to explain better.

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    Corollary to #2: if the price of hearing Bob go on is too high, factor that in to your decision to ask him for help instead of another info resource. – user1717828 Apr 26 '16 at 17:21
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    Consider also that Bob may still be talking because he knows you don't understand as well as you think you do. Now, you may still need to disengage because you can't digest the eighty-two exceptions to the rule that Bob has encountered over the years until you've had a chance to get your bearings, but "you're not giving me valuable information any more" is a very different problem from "I can't absorb any more of your valuable information at this time." – Air Apr 26 '16 at 20:50
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    FWIW this is also a non-answer. It does not answer "how to tell...?" – R.. Apr 29 '16 at 2:11
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    @R.., this is certainly an answer. Challenging the premise of the question and suggesting another solution is valid across StackExchange. – user45590 Apr 29 '16 at 11:16
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    Some people just love the sound of their own voice. Asking a questions shouldn't mean you have to listen to this person drone on for half an hour simply because they hold privileged information. I do not agree that you have to pay a "price" for asking a coworker for a bit of help, nor that you have to sacrifice time at a potentially critical moment (in the middle of fixing a bug) to listen to this person's concerns. The OP is clearly telling us that (s)he doesn't need this person's additional input (simply the facts), yet you're trying to convince them that no, you do. – AndreiROM Apr 29 '16 at 15:00
110

You are telling Bob that you understand and he doesn't seem to be processing that. Try showing him that you understand. I use this technique a lot -- not so much to shut down a rambling explanation but for verification, but I think it would work there.

Bob: blah blah blah.
You: Ok, so let me see if I understand -- you're saying I need to frob the widget like this and then configure the doohickey?
Bob: Yes, that's right.

Echoing it back to Bob, in your own words, confirms to both of you that you understand. If you don't he can correct you (no, you configure the doohickey first and then frob the widget). Just saying "ok, I get it" doesn't help if you actually don't get it.

In my experience, making a (correct) statement like this tends to end the conversation. Bob might ask if you have any other questions; if not, you're done.

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    IMO this will only encourage Bob. Walking away is the only effective option, even if it means leaving your own office. – user469104 Apr 26 '16 at 17:12
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    @user469104, Yup, Bob will say "Nonono" and then proceed, in an even more longwinded fashion, to explain the exact same thing you both just said in a slightly different, more elaborate way. – user1717828 Apr 26 '16 at 17:20
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    @user469104 in my experience, if the restatement works then Bob tends to leave it alone. He has work to do too, after all. I'm assuming Helpful Oversharing Bob, not Malicious Disruptive Bob. – Monica Cellio Apr 26 '16 at 17:39
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    @MonicaCellio What about Helpful Oversharing Too-Much-Time-On-His-Hands Bob? Or the worst one of all Helpful Oversharing About-to-Retire Bob... – called2voyage Apr 26 '16 at 19:13
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    I like this approach. Communication isn't just a series of statements. It's a shared understanding. Going "Ah, I see - ok, I've got it" doesn't demonstrate understanding. Maybe Bob is just a blowhard but you'll never know unless you try to communicate first. – candied_orange Apr 27 '16 at 2:03
55

My strategy for this is whenever possible go to Bob's desk to ask the question and don't sit down. If you are standing and in his space you will have a much easier time disengaging. Nod when he makes an appropriate point and start leaving while saying "thank you for your help".

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    A seasoned Bob will continue talking as you turn your shoulders away to depart, pulling you back like Scorpion. – user1717828 Apr 26 '16 at 17:19
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    This strategy works the other way around as well: I have a college who asks me over to his station for help with a problem. He starts explaining the problem and does not stop explaining even when I tell that I think I understand the problem and want to present a possible solution. In the end I have literally walked away saying: "if you don't listen to me you clearly do not need my help. Let me know when you are ready to listen to my advice". Maybe blunt but with some people this is necessary. – Jeff Apr 26 '16 at 17:42
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    @user1717828 A seasoned Bob foiler will be out of sight by the time they finish their farewells. – Myles Apr 26 '16 at 18:00
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    @user1717828 I used to have a backup plan for my Bob. "Hey, I'm going to ask Bob a question. If I'm not back in 5 minutes, come ask me to help with something" – MikeTheLiar Apr 26 '16 at 18:28
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    @Jeff very atypical behavior for a college – coburne Apr 26 '16 at 20:54
15

As a "Bob" who probably does this once in a while, I can tell you what I'm looking for: understanding.

The goal of me spending all this time teaching you stuff is so that I (hopefully) don't have to do it again. If you can show me that you understand what I'm explaining, then I know I've done my job.

One great way of doing this is proving a summary of the problem and solution in a way that clearly states why things were done in a certain way.

Example:

Bob: (on part 37) And then you click here...

You: Oh I see. So we attach the dohicky to the thingymabob so that we bypass the doodle and hit the wizbang.

Bob: Yeah! Now you've got it.

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    You are not Bob. Bob doesn't look for understanding. Bob simply loves the sound of his voice when explaining anything. I know because I am one :) – kubanczyk Apr 26 '16 at 20:16
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    I (another Bob) think it's a mix. Bob loves to explain things, and implicitly assert his importance to you, but there may also be a problem in communication skills. Bob may be failing to realize that effective communication is always a dialogue, and that talking more is often countereffective when it comes to creating clarity. If Bob is just being a nerd, it may work to address this explicitly, as just another engineering problem: how to optimize the effectiveness of your communication; he may get interested and actively work with you on a solution. – reinierpost Apr 27 '16 at 8:19
14

Don't!

Unless the explaining is taking up your time when you absolutely have to get back to something else, then curtailing Bob's explanations is foolish, especially if you're only doing it because you don't particularly happen to like hearing the explanation or if you feel cocksure you understand it and don't need more explanation.

The reason this is silly is not because you need the explanation. It's because you're totally missing the point that Bob's eagerness is telling you: Bob wants to be heard. Bob would like for Bob's expertise to be valued, validated, and useful. It makes Bob feel happy.

If you can make Bob feel happy merely by listening (not just absently nodding, but really listening), you're going to win yourself a great workplace friend, and someone who probably will go to bat for you if it's ever needed. You'll earn their respect and over time they will open up to consider your opinion as well.

I'm telling you, bend that spoon in your brain telling you the explanations are boring. They don't matter. What matters is that this is giving you a window into vital communication with Bob.

If the explanations truly are taking up time which you can't afford, say because of a deadline or something, then politely ask Bob if you can resume the discussion later, or maybe go to lunch together sometime and talk more about Bob's particular experience. And then really follow up on it, schedule that lunch appointment, etc.

I can't tell you the number of times that young-me passed up on letting someone else "get it all out" and bend my ear, sometimes because I thought I was busier than I was and sometimes because I sneered internally at their "presumption" that I "needed" the explanation.

Trust me, they are not lecturing you, they are opening up to you and the fact that they care enough to open up their experiences to you means they see value in the interaction.

You'll really build a strong network and great listening skills if you take the opposite approach and try to find out how to listen and absorb as much as possible when people want to explain like this.

  • 3
    This is terrific advice. OP, you gain more than you lose by allowing Bob to have a few minutes more of your time than you really want to give him. Plus, he's doing you a favour by explaining the thing you want to know, so you owe him a favour in return - if he wants you to be his audience then 'look interested for a few minutes' isn't a tricky thing to do. Maybe he'll surprise you and you'll learn more than you thought you would. – A E Apr 28 '16 at 15:08
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    This is a really useful piece of insight. It's important to build relationships, and remembering to consider the perspective of people whose actions we find annoying is a great way to do that. – Jason Apr 29 '16 at 14:01
7

I've seen the highest voted answers on here - and regardless of English or American culture, I'm not sure I agree with either of them.

The solution to this: Ask a counterquestion.

If your colleague won't stop explaining, you need to interrupt him - but not in a rude way. Ask a question that will verify your knowledge on the subject - something that addresses what your colleague has explained. This has some advantages:

  1. It makes you seem interested in the subject. (Hopefully, you are.)
  2. You will be able to summarize the topic in a single sentence, proving that you understand the concept.
  3. If you do understand the concept, you will prove it to your colleague.
  4. If you do not understand the concept, your colleague will let you know.
  5. This will advance the conversation. If you want to disengage, you have an opportunity to do so; if not, you can continue the conversation and learn more.

I am inclined to believe that your colleague simply wants you to succeed - he or she may be used to a different form of communication that is less "polite" than the communication that you are used to. Interrupting with a question may be a valid strategy for optimal communication with your colleague.

Hope this helps.

  • Attack as a form of defense, eh? Yep, that usually works – quetzalcoatl Apr 28 '16 at 9:21
6

I like @Myles answer and would like to offer an alternative which could work if you need to have Bob over at your place.

First things first: Make sure you two are alone. Nothing could be more embarrassing for him then feeling like being told off in front of others. Then explain to him in simple, honest words what your problem is: Apparently he does not register your "Ok, I got it" when he's in the flow; because he is so much into it.

So tell him that you really appreciate his help and that fact how deep his knowledge is. Then point out that he - every now and then - get's lost in his thoughts while explaining. Give an example with a smile and finish the conversation with "You will see what I mean the next time I ask you for help." This closing suggestion will stick in his subconsciousness and help him to be more aware.

5

If you already know Bob is a drag. Then prefer emails. You can explain your query in a mail. Else if you are by chance stuck talking to him in person and you are not so comfortable in stopping him from the unnecessary talks then, there are apps to make fake calls. You can make a call using the app for your rescue.Or maybe you can change the topic which dissinterest Bob so that he would talk less and you can make a early move.

  • 3
    I'm a semi-Bob and this method would deter me. – souser12345 Apr 27 '16 at 11:57
  • Deter??! Well i understand what it feels. But you should also understand what others want and talk according to their comfort and necessity. Talking/answering precisely or on point serves the need as well as saves both the persons time. @progo – asha iraddi Apr 27 '16 at 12:48
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    I've tried this (the email thing) and my Bob then asks me to come over and verbally explain my email which then ends up taking LONGER... – BunnyKnitter Apr 27 '16 at 16:03
  • There's another class of Bobs you didn't consider. There are Bobs who upon receiving such email, will actually answer to you by email and you will get a 15-page response, which you actually need to read because your answer is out there somewhere in the middle. – quetzalcoatl Apr 28 '16 at 9:17
3

There are 3 major possibilities.

  • Bob enjoys talking to you about this stuff. He's proud of his achievements and likes discussing them with intelligent people.

  • Bob genuinely doesn't trust you enough to believe that you understand the full implications of what he's describing.

  • Bob is as bored as you, but believes it's important to generally be thorough about this stuff

You need to establish which of these applies, and (if you can't, then politely offer him these three interpretations and asks how he views the situation).

If it's the first, the best way to solve the problem, as asha describes, is to switch to emails. If you want to avoid long conversations that go off on tangents, use a communication medium that encourages a single message. Better though, as Amy Blankenship describes is to accept that these conversations have a value beyond your problem, in that you are building a relationship with Bob.

If it's the second, then you need to preface your conversation with proof that I understand. I personally go with "Quick check, this is true", and if the conversation begins, then I suggest that we pair up to solve the problem; so that I can show Bob that I understand, and so that we can have this conversation in the context of the real code, in case there's something Bob doesn't understand (e.g. the code changed since last he saw it).

If it's the third, then your best option is to be open about why you are asking. Again, e-mails can help to keep the conversation to a minimum, as well as giving you a reference for future conversations, and adding to the value of that thoroughness.

3

Alison Green from Ask A Manager covered this recently with some excellent advice and suggested wording. I'll reproduce her post verbatim in case of link rot but I'd suggest viewing the original as I can't reproduce the formatting correctly.

If you're managing such a person you generally have more options and a responsibility to help the employee break the habit. for that have a look at these posts, also by Alison:


Ah, long-winded coworkers. It’s easier to handle this when you’re the person’s manager because then you can just give clear and direct feedback about what you want them doing differently. But you have some options with coworkers too:

  1. Know that it’s coming, and try to head it off in advance by saying things like:

    • “I only have a minute but wanted to quickly ask you about X.”
    • “I have a bunch of questions for you, so if you can focus on top-level responses, that’ll help, and then I’ll let you know if I need more details.”
    • “Can you give me a one-minute overview of X?”
  2. Don’t be afraid to interrupt and redirect. For example:

    • “I know there’s a lot of background here, but what I really need is just X.”
    • “Sorry to cut you off, but since I’m in a rush with this one, can we go straight to what the status of X is?”
    • “I appreciate you being thorough, but this is actually a lot more than I need. For my purposes, just X would be ideal.”
    • “Actually, since my piece of this is really just X, can we focus there?”

(Whether or not these feel polite or rude will depend on context. Obviously, select accordingly.)

  1. Have a big-picture conversation about the pattern and what you need. Whether or not to do this will depend in part on your relationship and dynamic with the person, but in some cases you could say something like this: “You’re great at giving me lots of background. Much of the time, though, I just need the quick upshot. Can we try to start with the quick upshot, and then if I need more details, I’ll ask?”

None of these are likely to fix the problem 100%, but some combination of them will probably cut down on a lot of it.

Source: how can I get my coworker to stop rambling and get to the point?, 2016-03-24

  • 1
    I can support these ideas since I've been both sides of the Bob Problem (or Boblem, if you will) I find it's helpful to use this as a quick out, since it leaves things a bit open ended. "Thanks Bob, I'm sure you've got a bunch of stuff to do, so I'll come grab you if I need anything else, thanks!" – jaichele May 2 '16 at 13:46
1

There's no good way to get around people like these. You just have to gently push them away. I would also suggest remaining very polite in case you need their help again in the future.

If I were you I would consider asking the questions over at their workstation so that when you have your answer you can walk away rather than wait for them to get the hint.

Last but not least, don't ask them questions you might easily research the answer to yourself - limit your interactions with them.

Otherwise I'm sorry to say that these is no magic recipe.

  • 4
    I agree except for "remaining very polite". "Modestly polite" or even "barely polite" is sufficient. We don't recognize impatience, boredom, or other non-anger emotions, why do you think we would we be able to distinguish between degrees of politeness? -- Bob – davidbak Apr 26 '16 at 16:20
  • Part of the art of people is learning to "turn them up" without "turning them off". There is a social style out there called analytic. It means that the person needs lots of details to make decisions about doing anything. And unfortunately they assume everyone else does too. Pushing them away may not be the most effective way to get shared work done. Finding ways of limiting their time to explain, polite cues that you share their view, things like that may be more effective. – ThatGuy Apr 29 '16 at 14:47
1

In a working environment this is very easy to deal with. Simply thank them for their help and say now I need to go and do x. This could be a meeting, it could be taking something to someone, it could be using the loo, anything that requires you to physically leave for a few moments. This brings a natural break to the conversation and no rudeness because it is the task at hand which demanded the break.

0

Be careful to ONLY use this if you are pressed for time.

The reason why is because, decent people have a strong sense of wanting to help each other, and can be especially forgiving when they feel that you are pressed for time and need to get somewhere important.

The following works for me:

Raise your hand and blurt out, "Let me stop you there."

Then immediately follow with a small apology:

"So sorry if that sounded rude, but I'm in a bit of a rush you see. I have a [excuse here] and..."

Example excuses:

  • [thing] to get to e.g. Meeting
  • Promise to keep
  • [food] getting cold on the table e.g. Carbonara
  • [program] I don't want to miss e.g. Game of Thrones
  • [thing] that needs [something] e.g. dog that needs walking

You have now said all you need to let your audience know that you need an answer quickly.

Now, you must explain what you want your audience to answer as briefly and xoncisely as possible, without sounding condescending or short of patience:

"I wasn't after handles for forks. I'm after one, two, three, four candles."

"You've told me everything I needed to know, and I need to get this done."

If you're the tiniest bit unsure that you can commit, then keep your mouth shut and listen patiently until it's your turn to speak.

Now, since your audience is expecting you to be in a rush, it is a good idea to finish the meeting as quickly as possible, excuse yourself and get the heck out of there as quickly as possible.

Don't forget to say goodbye.

"Sorry to be in such a rush. Thanks for your help. Take care. Good bye."

In your specific case, the problem is probably that Bob is a really nice person and they're probably easily upset.

In which case, don't ask her to help you again. Ask someone with thicker skin next time.

This should come in handy for a variety of situations.

protected by Jane S Apr 28 '16 at 10:50

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