All of us harp on about things sometimes

When I wrote about why people harp on about things, I got several confessions from readers about times when they had done this. Many seemed a bit embarrassed to have noticed that sometimes they harp on about something. Some also recognised the types of situations where they tend to do this.

Jarno Virtanen shared this:

”I spent some time thinking about situations where I’ve harped on about something. It’s usually to do with something that I feel should be a certain way, that it isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s not a situation where one person says this and the other says that, but that the organisation doesn’t seem to be able to do something that I think must be fixed. For example, a cyber security protocol (or lack thereof) that doesn’t cause an immediate threat, but doing it would reduce potential threats.”

It’s easy to see how in such a situation you might end up repeating yourself once or twice if your message doesn’t seem to get across. The more we feel worried or frustrated, the more likely we begin to harp on about it. We repeat ourselves in the hope of being heard.

But if harping on about something doesn’t seem to help, what should you do?

How to get your message across without harping on about it

It’s a sign of good self-reflection to even notice that you are harping on about something. It’s an important first step towards resolving the situation in a mutually satisfactory way. Harping on about something is a type of stalemate where repeating the same thing (slower, louder, more angrily or with more facts) might not have the desired result.

Instead, it’s good to take a step backwards, examine what’s happening and try to become more conscious about your own and the other person’s internal world.

Begin with self-examination

When you find yourself harping on about something, sit down and answer the following questions:

  • Which feelings does this thing or situation evoke in me?
  • Which worries, fears or sources of stress do I have about this?
  • What is it about the other person’s behaviour that makes me harp on about this?
  • What would I need to be able to stop?
    • If I can’t get that, can I get something else that I could be sufficiently happy with?
      • If I can’t get that either, is there anything else that I could accept?

Often even becoming aware of our internal world helps us to calm down. A vague ball of stress becomes a list of more concrete things, and it’s easier to put our own viewpoint into perspective too. It’s also easier to seek for new ways to communicate when you know more precisely what you need and hope will happen.

Walk in the other person’s shoes for a moment

Next, try to think about why the other person isn’t willing to listen or to respond the way you’d hope:

  • How do they concretely react?
  • What might they be feeling right now?
  • What could explain their behaviour/lack of action so far?
  • What are the stakes of this situation for them?
  • How/From whom would they best receive this argument?
  • Why might it be difficult for them to hear what you’d like to say?

Even if we don’t agree, we can still understand the other person. The better we can relate to the other person’s point of view and the deeper we understand their needs and motives, the easier it is for us to think about arguments that appeal to them.

Communicate the results

After thinking about this, our message might be more meta level than earlier. We won’t only talk about the thing but also about why it makes us harp on about it. We’ll share what types of worries and fears we still have about the subject. We’ll consider how our interests might conflict. For example:

”Hey, I’ve brought up this cyber security protocol thing many times and I can well imagine that it might be frustrating. I notice that I harp on about it because I truly worry about what effect it could have. I understand that we have very limited resources and we need to constantly balance between different development tasks. However, it’s difficult for me to leave this be before I can trust that the worries about this threat have at least been considered sufficiently. Could we go through my arguments one more time?”

We can help the listener on a meta level

We can help the other person hear the issue underneath the harping if we stop repeating ourselves and instead talk about what’s not working in the conversation. When we honestly admit that we’re harping on about something, it’s easier for the other person to return to the discussion, even if they’re frustrated. The other person might not have any idea about what, specifically, we would need for us to leave the matter alone.

Occasionally, it will turn out that we haven’t been able to express ourselves clearly. The other person might not necessarily have heard our points with the level of seriousness that we intended. Metatalk will also help us check if we’re on the same page about the seriousness of the issue.

We’ve learnt to think that talking about things is enough. We assume that facts, data and sound arguments are enough. If we don’t get our point across, we bring in more and better arguments.

In reality, communication, negotiation, argumentation, relationships and teamwork have a lot more to do with meta-level discussions: opinions, priorities, compromises, balancing – and feelings. Even when we’re talking about rational things.

TL;DR: What should I do if harping on about something doesn’t help?

  • Notice that you’re doing it.
  • Think about your own feelings and needs.
  • Consider why the other person isn’t willing to listen or answer the way you’d hope.
    • The better you understand the other person’s point of view, the more convincing your arguments will be.
  • Tell the other person about things in the background that affect the actual issue.
  • Facts, data and arguments are not enough; we also need to talk on a meta level.

Or what do you think?

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