Is your cubicle the unofficial office water cooler? Are you tempted to set up shop in the handicapped stall just to close a door and get some work done? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 5 tips for when Jeff from accounting stops by to give you the play-by-play of his morning workout.
How to Deal with People Who Talk Too Much?
Brian hits the answer spot-on when he asks how he can be more assertive. Moving from passive to assertive can feel wrong and dangerous, especially when we weren’t taught to stand up for ourselves. But at its heart, being assertive simply means leaving an interaction with respect for others and respect for yourself intact.
Now, ideally, Brian’s cube visitors would self-regulate or reflect on their impact on him, but it’s also important for Brian (and all of us!) to set boundaries. Therefore, here are five things to try when Leonard from accounting launches into a play-by-play of his divorce proceedings.
Tip #1: Say it out loud.
It’s tempting to use non-verbal cues to signal you don’t want to chat—avoid looking at them, glance at your work, or even continue to type while they stand there and yammer. But folks who treat Brian’s cube like the local watering hole aren’t great at picking up on subtle cues.
Even though it’s hard, if it’s clear that Kevin from the next cube is settling in for a long monologue about the Patriots liberally littered with quotes from "The Hangover" franchise, nip it in the bud.
How? It may be tempting to wait for an opening or to engage for a few minutes so you don’t feel rude, but if you know exactly what’s happening when Kevin rolls his chair into your cube, it’s okay to interrupt before he even sits down. You can even raise your hand in a “stop” gesture.
The key is how you do it. You get to set the tone. Say you’re busy, you can’t talk, or that you’re on a deadline in the same tone you’d use to ask the time or order a sandwich—present it as a simple fact, without overly-polite acrobatics or “We have to talk”-style dramatics.
Some lines include:
- “Hey Kevin, I want to hear this, but today I’ve gotta stay on schedule. I’ll catch you later, okay?”
- “Hey how’s it going? I’m on a deadline, so nobody can talk to me until 3:00. See you then.”
- “Good to see you! Hey, I’m in the middle of something—can you stop by later?”
- (Said in mock frustration, with shoo-shoo hand gestures) “No talking today—I’m trying to quit!”
For those of us raised not to interrupt, this feels wrong. But I finally learned that many talkers realize they’re filling the air and therefore don’t actually take offense when you put a stop to it. Whether it’s nervous chatter, procrastination over their own work, or just lack of a mental filter, their talk gets as big as the space we give it, so less time doesn’t mean less goodwill, it just means less talk.
Even more counterintuitive, sometimes talkers know they’re wasting your time—it makes them feel powerful and in control, not in a sociopathic way, but just enough to give them an ego-reinforcing boost when they visit your cube. They get a break and a pick-me-up, which makes them come back for more. Assuming they’re not bona fide bullies, when you interrupt and set a boundary, they actually don’t get mad, they just go elsewhere, and they respect you more for standing up for yourself.
Of course, calibrate your assertiveness to the visitor. Don’t shoo away your boss, even if he’s stopping by just to harass you about putting the new cover sheet on your TPS report.
Let me validate: it can be hard to push back, especially if you haven’t had much practice, but consider it an experiment. Try it and see how it goes. Because we already know the alternative, which is stewing in resentment for as long as the monologue lasts.
Tip #2: Redirect visitors to come back during “office hours.”
It is important to listen to the occasional story to build rapport and get along. But you don’t have to do it on their schedule.
Therefore, tell people what time you’re free or stipulate a time limit.
- “I’m on a deadline, so I have two minutes.”
- “I’m just in the middle of wrapping something up—can you come back in half an hour?”
Again, it’s best to do this verbally. Posting a sign, especially an earnest, overly-serious sign, often comes across as passive-aggressive or out of step, so think twice before posting anything. The one exception can be a humorous sign. If your workplace culture can handle it, on the days you need it, consider a temporary sign outside your cube or even on the back of your chair:
- Nerd marinating—do not disturb until 3 PM deadline has passed
- Interrupt me before 2 PM and wolves will rip your face off
- Brian’s Visitor Cheat Sheet for Monday: Q: How’s it going? A: Fine. Q: How was your weekend? A: Relaxing. Q: Can I ask you a question? A: Yes—after 3:30 when I’ve wrapped this up.