Some people don’t catch social cues, while others are just looking to vent. Here’s how to handle everyone in your office who keeps talking your ear off.
As you read this article, can you hear your coworker yammering on in the background? (Or maybe the foreground?) Did you just pop your headphones on, in a passive-aggressive gesture meant to convey that you have work to do and can’t talk right now? Some coworkers regularly subject us to long, largely pointless conversations. They don’t usually know how annoying that can be, and office etiquette doesn’t always leave room to tell those colleagues point-blank to just please shut up thank you very much!
So what can you do to avoid unending discussions that suck up your time along with the remaining shreds of your sanity? The answer depends a bit on who you’re dealing with. Here’s your field guide to some of the chatterboxes in your office and how to handle them.
1. THE OBLIVIOUS SOCIALIZER
Credit: The Balance
One species of chatty coworker starts a normal conversation on a critical work topic that demands your attention. Once you’ve completed your business, though, they just keep on talking. Occasionally these conversations might be nice, but not on days when you’re pressed for time. Maybe you try various efforts to end the conversation indirectly: checking your watch, glancing at your work, edging away from the conversation. None of these strategies help, though, because your coworker is either unable or unwilling to pay attention to the normal social cues that the conversation is winding down.
People like this need a more direct signal, even if it makes you uncomfortable to provide it. After all, if they never pay attention to what you’re doing, you can’t convey to them that you need to get back to your work. In situations like this, it’s fine to just apologize and break off the conversation: “Great talking with you, Gene–listen, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to take a stab at this write-up before our 3 p.m. team meeting. Catch you then, though!”
One thing to bear in mind is that folks who don’t catch onto social cues may already realize that they tend to prolong conversations but just can’t stop themselves from doing it. So you might not hurt their feelings simply by stating your own needs explicitly–they’ll get it.
2. THE CHRONIC VENTER
Credit: Ask Opinion
Some people live in a perpetual state of crisis, or feel as though the world is constantly dumping on them. No minor annoyance is too small that it can’t be blown up into a significant problem that signals the downfall of the entire organization. And they will go on about these issues at length.
These people are looking for allies and validation. Their complaints are meant to create solidarity with other disaffected people and earn the sympathy of anybody else who’s suffered mistreatment in the office. Because validation is the oxygen of the chronic venter, you have to cut off their supply. Meet their complaints with cheerful statements about how much you enjoy your work or how you’ve had great interactions in the past with the person they’re complaining about.
By being relentlessly upbeat, the fact that you’re disagreeing with everything they’re saying isn’t likely to cause friction. Instead, you’ll just take all the reward out of their complaining, leading them to seek other prey.
3. THE FRIEND IN NEED
Some people at work are just lonely. Their jobs may not give them many opportunities to have conversations, and their personal lives might not be filled with other people they can have good conversation with. Single parents, for example, may crave an adult conversation every once in a while, and may find that the office is the only place to get it.
Being a good colleague means that you’ll want to engage with these people now and then. After all, you may have some lonely times in the future where you need to just sit and talk to a colleague. That doesn’t mean your coworker who’s feeling isolated gets to control the schedule, though. Instead, seize control. When you see the friend-in-need coming, set up a time to grab coffee or lunch with them when it’s convenient for you. If you’re worried about a potentially long-running conversation, set your meeting time when you have something else you have to head off to afterward–and let them know about it ahead of time. By setting a timetable for this type of chatterbox, you’re reasserting control over the encounter.
Finally, when you’re dealing with chatty coworkers, look in the mirror. Are there situations where perhaps you’re the one who is going on too long? Start to pay attention to your own conversational habits, too. The surest way to offend your coworkers is to cut them off when they come to talk to you, but ramble at length whenever you reach out to them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership, Smart Change, and most recently, Brain Briefs, co-authored with his "Two Guys on Your Head" co-host Bob Duke, which focuses on how you can use the science of motivation to change your behavior at work and at home.
This article first appeared in Fast Company.