Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.
I work with a dedicated and conscientious person. We have the same title and role and interact a lot for our jobs. I like her but she is extremely chatty. She is clueless as to how it impacts me and our joint workload, and it’s starting to wear on me.
A typical conversation will be her asking “How was your weekend?” Upon anyone’s response, she is off and running and can’t be stopped. If someone says they went to the lake on the weekend, she’ll respond “Oh, I have a cousin who has a lake house but the house has been condemned because it was infested by rats so she had to move and now she lives in a different town but she lives in an apartment and she needs to downsize but she’s worried if she sells her furniture she’ll have to buy more…” She’ll continue to ramble on—you get the idea. She doesn’t seem to understand she’s talking too much and making it hard to focus on work.
I’m impacted the most because we work together so closely. It was worse when we were in the office, but even now that we’re working remotely she floods our Slack channels and my IMs with chitchat.
It’s to the point where sometimes I don’t even respond but it doesn’t stop her. I think she’ll be wounded if I’m too direct, but this has to stop. What can I do?
Every office seems to have an excessive chatter, at least judging by my inbox. So you’ve got a lot of company in this (loud, distracting) boat.
When you’re dealing with an incessant talker, you have two options: deal with it on a case-by-case basis as it happens, or have a big-picture conversation with her about your need for more space to focus. The second option will probably feel more awkward in the moment, but it tends to be less exhausting in the long run.
But if you’re not ready for that—and it’s fine if you’re not—then the approach to try first is being more assertive about setting boundaries in the moment. That means saying things like:
- “Sorry, I’m swamped today and can’t really chat!”
- “I’d better get back to this X project, I’ve got a ton to do.”
- “I’m on deadline but maybe we can catch up later.”
- “I’m glad your weekend was good! I can’t talk much today, got to finish up X.”
- “I better let you go—I’m swamped.”
- “Sorry to cut you off—I’ve got to get back to this.”
- “I should stop us before we get into a longer conversation—I’m right in the middle of X and don’t want to lose my focus.”
When you say these things in-person, it helps to reinforce the message by immediately turning back to your work. On Slack or IM, you can’t send those visual cues but you can send other cues—like not responding to any subsequent messages for a few hours or even the whole day.
Even if these strategies don’t stop your co-worker in the long term, they’re likely to get you some immediate space and quiet. If they don’t, try asserting yourself further: “Sorry, I really meant it when I said I can’t talk now. Let me get back to this and we’ll catch up another time.”
But unless your co-worker is excellent at picking up on cues (and clearly she’s not), at some point you’re probably going to need to have that bigger-picture conversation with her. That might mean saying something like, “I enjoy talking with you, but it’s hard for me to chat much during the day when I’m trying to focus on work. I usually need to get back to what I’m doing pretty quickly. I’m going to try to be more disciplined about that, and I don’t want you to take it personally.” Or you could say, “I want to let you know that I’m trying to focus better during the day so I probably won’t be able to chat as much as we used to.”
Once you’ve done that, you’ll likely find it easier to be direct in the future when she’s talking your ear off. You can say, “Sorry, working!” or “On deadline, let’s talk later!” and just leave it there.
You mentioned that you’re worried your co-worker will be hurt if you’re very direct, but by not taking the more subtle cues that sometimes work, she’s putting you in a situation where you need to be direct. Plus, I suspect you’re worrying about this coming across as rude when you wouldn’t find it rude if the roles were reversed! Imagine someone else setting this same type of boundary with you—even if you were a little embarrassed, ultimately you’d understand and respect their request, right? (Especially if they continued being warm to you when you did interact.)
But if she does seem hurt, keep in mind that there was nothing unreasonable about your request—in fact, you have an obligation to your employer to set boundaries on your time and your level of socializing while you work. And it’s your colleague’s responsibility to handle reasonable requests… well, reasonably. If she seems stung for more than a day or two, it could be useful to say, “I want to make sure I didn’t offend you. I’m trying to be conscientious about what I need to do to focus, and I hope you don’t take that personally.” But you also shouldn’t fall into feeling like you need to manage your coworker’s feelings for her.
And ultimately, if she’s a nice person, and it sounds like you think she is, it’s more respectful to let her know what you need, rather than just silently stewing about something she doesn’t realize is annoying you.
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