Here’s one of the questions I hear over and over from people: “How can I get my long-winded co-worker to stop talking to me?” Our workplaces are apparently rife with co-workers who prattle on about their relationship troubles, diet challenges, wedding plans, the movie they saw last weekend, work complaints – anything and everything – without realizing that other people are trying to work.
Co-workers who won’t stop talking aren’t just annoying; they can also impact your productivity when you can’t get them to leave you in peace. And they can strain relationships by making you feel like there’s no way to tell them you need them to be quiet without you being the one who comes across as rude.
The good news is that you can politely assert boundaries with chatty co-workers, as long as you’re willing to be reasonably direct. Here’s how:
1. Explain you’re busy. If it sounds obvious, that’s because it is – but surprisingly few people try just speaking up and letting a talkative co-worker know that now is a bad time. If you haven’t done this already, it’s the first thing to try. Say: “I’m on deadline, so I can’t talk now,” or “I’m right in the middle of finishing something. Sorry I can’t chat!” or “I need to get back to this report.” It’s also perfectly fine to use a white lie, like: “I’m about to get a call that I need to prepare for.”
2. Be straightforward about the problem. If your co-worker doesn’t start to get the hint after you’ve tried to address it in the moment a few times, move on to addressing the bigger-picture pattern. That means explaining to your co-worker that this is happening regularly and making it tough for you to focus on your work. For example, you might say: “I’ve noticed you like to chat during the workday, but it’s really hard for me to do that. I’m often on deadline, and it’s hard for me to take a break to talk.” Or you could say: “I’m finding that I’m having trouble focusing on my work because of how often we’re talking during the day, so I’m going to try to be better about resisting socializing when you come by. I hope you understand!”
If your co-worker rambles more about work topics than social ones, you could instead say: “I’m finding that it’s tough for me to focus when I have too many unscheduled interruptions. Could we schedule a time to meet each week and save up the items we need to discuss for then?”
3. If you’re willing to, offer to connect with your co-worker on your own terms. If you do enjoy talking with your co-worker (perhaps in more limited doses), suggest an alternative, such as occasionally grabbing coffee or getting lunch together. You don’t need to do this if you don’t want to, but if you like your co-worker and just want to funnel the interactions into a different form, this can be a good way to do that.
4. Keep reinforcing the message. If the problem continues after you’ve had that big-picture conversation, realize that it may take some time to “retrain” your co-worker, but it can be done. If she drops by to chat, say: “Sorry, I’m on deadline” or “Remember how I’m trying to be better about not chit-chatting during the day? I’ve got to shoo you out and return to this report.”
5. If all else fails, consider talking to your co-worker’s manager. If none of the above works, and your co-worker is significantly impacting your productivity, it’s time to consider giving your colleague’s manager a heads up about what’s going on. Depending on the manager and the dynamics in your office, that may or may not make sense, but know that it’s an option and that a lot of managers would want to know that an employee was spending so much time distracting others. And if you do decide to say something, be sure to mention that you’ve tried to address it directly with the co-worker yourself, which will likely be the manager’s first question to you otherwise.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She’s the author of “How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager,” co-author of “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager’s Guide to Getting Results” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.