Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
 an Unfocused Person

How to be with someone
 who "can't concentrate"

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/unfocused.htm

Updated  02-02-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers (a) perspective on being "focused," and (b) illustrates effective responses to a significantly-unfocused person. It assumes you're familiar with...

      This brief YouTube video offers perspective on reducing "mind chatter." The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've reduced that to seven.


      Can you think of an adult or child who often bounces from one topic to another without finishing the first one? Do you find yourself wondering "So what's your point?" S/He may or may not talk non-stop (a separate problem). If you know such a person, recall how you feel when they bounce around. Impatient? Annoyed? Frustrated? Amused? Critical? Scornful? Bored? Something else?

      Reflect on what you need from a "rambler," and how you normally try to fill your need (how you respond to them). Is it effective?

      To craft an effective response, be aware of several things. First, accept that for whatever reason, the person is unaware of having a "one-person awareness bubble.'' That's normal for most kids, and vexing with most adults - specially if they're egotistical. Where this is true, you probably need the person to want to expand to a steady two-person bubble (i.e. to be genuinely aware of your feelings and needs).

       Second, review the five reasons we all communicate, and guess what s/he needs by rambling? Possible needs: to...

  • be "pleasant" and avoid disapproval and rejection;

  • avoid scary feelings from a true two-way conversation;

  • avoid feeling inept as a conversational partner;

  • avoid exposing shameful ignorance or "weirdness;" and/or to...

  • maintain control of your exchange and avoid insecurity;

  • express unconscious nervousness and anxiety;

  • impress or attract you in some way; and/or to...

  • avoid uncomfortable silence, or feeling "We have nothing to talk about."

Note the theme - s/he probably rambles to guard against some anxiety (discomfort). If you intuit what a rambler needs, how would that affect your communication needs? Do you acknowledge that your needs and his/hers are of equal merit?

      Third, clarify what your role is with this person. Are you a friend or relative? A parent? a coworker? A superior or subordinate? Your roles will probably shape your needs and responses - e.g. you'd respond differently to your sibling or child than to your boss, a stranger, or a state trooper (yes?).

Response Options

      To be aware of dynamics like those above, you'll need your true Self to be steadily guiding you. If not, make that your first priority! Then...

  • Clarify what you need your response to accomplish - specifically. To vent? Inform? Cause change? To help or rescue?  Avoid conflict? Problem solve? Something else? Several of these?

  • Decide whether you're responsible for filling the rambler's probable needs now. If s/he's an able adult, you're probably not responsible. You are responsible for your attitude and behavior.

  • If appropriate, review your mutual rights as dignified people, regardless of age or status.

  • Mentally review the principals of giving effective feedback to a willing partner. The more you do it, the more automatic it becomes.

  • Depending on what outcome you wish, try responses like these:

"(Name), are you open to some feedback (about how you're talking) now?"

To vent and inform

"So you want me to know _________ ." (sum up the most recent topic and what you think the person needed by talking about it).

"(Name), are you aware that you often bounce from one subject to another? (When you do, I have trouble following you / start to tune you out)."

"I'm feeling confused now."

"(Name), when you bounce from one subject to another so often, I feel ___________ (...and I need you to stay focused on one thing at a time.)"

"I'm not sure why you're telling me this. Can you sum up your point?" If you use this, the person may not be aware of why they're talking, and may make up some reason. If so, they're probably unaware of being ruled by a false self. 

To cause change

"Please stop for a second."

"(Name), it's frustrating for me when you change topic so often. I'm going to let you know when you do that."

"You're rambling again..."


To problem-solve

"(Name), would you like me to alert you when you change the subject?"

"How would you like me to alert you?"

"I'm going to put up my hands when you change the subject too fast for me."

      Even if you respond calmly and respectfully, a wounded (shame-based) person may interpret your message as a criticism or attack. S/He may deny, explain, over-apologize, whine, criticize or blame you, numb out, or something else. If so, use empathic listening to acknowledge what s/he says, and then repeat your response calmly, with good eye contact. Do this sequence as often ad you need to get your point across.

      Sense the theme of these options, and use your own style and language to respond. Notice how many choices you have, rather than having to endure the other's rambling!


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers ways to respond effectively to someone who rambles and has trouble staying focused. Responses vary depending on what your needs are. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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