How to Deal When People Take Forever to Get to the Point
“Bridgesplaning” might be annoying, but sometimes it has a purpose
There’s a classic Saturday Night Live sketch called “The Chris Farley Show,” in which Chris Farley fumbles his way through an interview with the music legend Paul McCartney: “Remember when you were with the Beatles, and you were supposed to be dead?” asks Farley. “That was a hoax, right?”
“Yeah,” says a very alive McCartney.
In a sketch, it’s funny to keep going over something super-basic that everyone knows. It’s much less funny in real life when you are trying to get things done and someone else, instead of being useful, decides to tell you something that you didn’t ask for, don’t need, and very likely already know. But you sit there, serenely as Paul McCartney, because this person has information you need and you just have to suck it up and wait it out until they get there.
It’s not annoying for the same reasons that mansplaining is. This isn’t necessarily about condescension. It’s just about taking too damn long to get to the point. Call it bridge-splaining — where the stuff you already know is the bridge to the stuff you need to know but don’t. Think: your accountant, the pharmacist, your child’s pediatrician, your boss, your pedantic co-worker.
It’s a necessary evil of interacting with other humans (try asking a four-year-old how their day was) but it seems even more excruciating in these modern times when we’re used to multitasking through almost any moment of tedium and every moment of patient, unstimulated attention is an agony. But since it is a necessary evil, here are four ways to manage, expedite, and maybe even appreciate it:
First, do no harm
Be warned! Messing with the bridge might torpedo it for good.
People have egos and neuroses. Asking them to, you know, get to the point already could “be perceived as aggressive, or combative,” says the journalist Lea Goldman, a former senior executive editor at A&E, Hearst, and Refinery 29 who’s done more than her fair share of interviews. If you really want or need some information from the person who is talking, Goldman notes, then “the goal is always that you make your subject as comfortable as possible so they open up to you as much as possible.”
And impatiently rushing someone through their thoughts can ripple out past the immediate moment. “We all have a biological need to feel heard, seen, and valued,” says the workplace culture strategist Daisy Auger-Domínguez. “So yes, a certain finesse and grace should be applied with colleagues if you want to nurture a collaborative workplace culture. You can’t really build trust if you don’t listen to others.”
Use the moment as a pivot
Sometimes, an over-explanation in a meeting “is just an attempt to make sure everyone has what they need,” says Faye Penn, the executive director of women.nyc, an initiative of the NYC Office of the Mayor (though Penn emphasizes that she was speaking in an individual capacity and not on behalf of the NYC Economic Development Corporation). “I much prefer sitting through a bit of retread to not having enough information to be fully effective.”
If you are leading the meeting, this can be a great opportunity to make sure that everyone is on the same page — and then crisply move them off it. “Make sure you are leading the meeting and driving it where it needs to go,” says Penn. (She also advises body-blocking this in advance by sending out an “air-tight” agenda, including background material, so no one needs Chad’s helpful impromptu explainers: “Set the table tightly so there’s little opportunity for participants to go rogue.”)
True pros can use the pivot as an opportunity for positive reinforcement: If the bridgesplainer is repeating a comment someone else already made, call attention to whoever had the thought originally, says Auger-Domínguez, who suggests something like, “Thank you for restating the suggestion Margot just made. I know we can generate more ideas.” Got it, Chad?
In a one-on-one conversation, you can pivot by saying something like, “Yes, you’re so right to remind me of that,” which butters them up, while firmly signaling that it’s time to move on.
Recognize your own implicit bias
Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Or, in bridgesplaining terms: It’s very easy to be an expert about something you know nothing about.
Look no further than a crucial plot point in The Devil Wears Prada, where bookish, smartypants Andie snorts to herself about fashionistas fretting over tiny details that she sees as frivolous and silly. Up until that point in the movie, the audience is meant to share that view as Andie encounters the superficial world of a fashion magazine. But then the magazine’s top editor Miranda Priestly delivers an iconic monologue about Andie’s blue sweater that pivots the whole film to show Andie as the narrow-minded one. Yes, Albert Einstein would have loved The Devil Wears Prada, just as he would have looked amazing in those leather stiletto boots Andie wore after her makeover.
Auger-Domínguez could have told you that. (About inherent bias, not about Einstein and the boots.) “The inherent risk in hurrying someone telling you something that you already know assumes that your version of the truth is the right one and theirs is wrong,” she says. As a workplace strategist, she regularly sees how that risk plays out: “We look for what confirms our beliefs and ignore what contradicts them,” a tendency known as confirmation bias. (This, by the way, is how you get huge dumbass mistakes like glass staircases seemingly designed for peeping Toms and spacesuits that only fit men.)
Auger-Domínguez identifies it as the chance for you to be quiet and let someone else do the talking — especially when that’s not your normal. “Women, people of color, and other underrepresented and/or marginalized identities are just used to making ourselves smaller, quieter, and easy to get along with to survive in an organizational context,” she says, while white and/or male and/or cisgendered people tend to be used to dominating conversations.
So think: Do you really actually know what this person is telling you, or might they have a different version that can fill out your own? “The promise of diversity and inclusion is to leverage diverse viewpoints, ideas, and lived experiences,” says Auger-Domínguez. “This requires us to keep an open and curious mind, a patience that often evades the best of us, and be willing to evaluate and integrate new information.”
Take a deep breath and try to get out of your own head for a second. Are you truly so busy and important that you can’t sit through a few extra minutes? Is this other person truly so insignificant that you can’t dedicate your attention to them just a little bit longer?
“Oh no, you might lose 10 minutes of time!” jokes Goldman. “Oh no, you might spend a few more minutes on the phone with someone when you could be texting! I mean, literally, what’s the downside of spending 10 more minutes?”
Most of the time, there isn’t one. But there might be an upside: Those 10 minutes of listening could make it more likely that you get to a revelation you weren’t expecting, or an answer to a throwaway question that ends up making headlines. “The mark of an excellent reporter is to be able to ask the same question 20 different ways to see if you elicit a different response,” says Goldman. “The easy thing to do is to just give up after two tries and say, ‘I’m not getting what I need here.’ But the harder, more skillful thing to do is to chip away at it.”
If you think of information exchange as a transaction to be streamlined, then you’ll inevitably face disappointment while dealing with fallible human people who can’t read your mind while theirs is going off on a tangent — which is to say, all of us. But if you think of a conversation as a bridge taking you somewhere you want to be, then it opens up all sorts of other possibilities. And odds are, you’ll leave the interaction with a much better understanding of what you were hoping to learn.
And in the meantime, be nice about it! Take a cue from Paul McCartney and just say, “You’re doing great, Chris.”