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How to (Politely) Tune Out the Office Chatterbox

Is the office chatterbox driving you to distraction? It's possible to set boundaries and stick to them without being awkward or rude.

By
Jade Wu
Episode #263
Man holding up hand in stop gesture

Surviving and thriving in the modern workplace takes a lot of social skills. You have to be likable but also assertive, hard-working but not too uptight, a good problem-solver but not someone who steps on toes. In this ecosystem, how do you thrive if you have a constant fly buzzing in your ear?

I have a friend who is a total lady boss. She works in finance in New York City. I don't understand what she does, but it's a high power job, and she is confident, effective, and generally a badass. But one time, when our circle of friends asked how her job was going, and she seemed so distraught that we thought something had gone terribly wrong.

It turned out that her new officemate was a chatterbox.

Lots of people struggle with chatty coworkers

Having a chatterbox in the office may not seem like a big deal, but for my friend and many others, it is. He was an unrelenting, all-day-every-day talker. He didn't seem to notice that she wasn't interested in his near-constant chatter. She was distracted, and the agitation she felt made it hard to concentrate even when he wasn't talking, which made her productivity tank. Just when she thought she could get back into her train of thought again, he would jump in with another quip. Telling him how busy she was didn't work. Not responding at all didn't work—he would repeat himself to make sure she heard him. Asking their boss to give him feedback didn't work. She was at wit's end.

I know my friend is not alone. A surprising number of my patients have expressed significant distress about dealing with an office chatterbox. They feel not only frustrated by the distraction but also guilty about the almost-violent thoughts they sometimes have about their otherwise lovely coworker.

Worry not! There are graceful ways of shutting down and tuning out a relentless chatterbox at work. And none of them involve throwing keyboards.

Four ways to deal with the office chatterbox

Before we review these tips, first, make sure that you've given your chatterbox coworker a fair chance. If this person is new, they may want to be friendly and make a good first impression. They might be talking out of nervousness or following social norms from their last workplace. For the first few interactions, it's good to respond positively and give your new coworker a chance to save face.

If it turns out that they really can't seem to read the room, and they persist in bugging you,  here are some boundary-setting tips.

1. Don't make eye contact. Use other body language to disengage.

If you are a nice person like my friend, you'll find yourself naturally inclined to make eye contact, smile, nod, and turn to face the person when they talk. This body language gives the signal that you're interested, and this positive attention reinforces the chatterbox's behavior.

Make eye contact with the spreadsheet on your computer screen while you tell Chatty Cathy that you are in the middle of something right now.

Instead, make eye contact with the spreadsheet on your computer screen while you tell Chatty Cathy that you are in the middle of something right now. Don't turn your body towards them, and let your voice naturally sound distracted (because you are!) so you don't accidentally convey enthusiasm.

2. Own your discomfort. Make "I" statements.

I've noticed that I, and other polite people, have a habit of expressing my discomfort by talking around it. For example, I'm tempted to say something like "Boy, this deadline is getting close. Isn't it crazy how much work we still have to do today?" What I actually mean is "I really need to work right now, so I'd rather not chat."

Notice that the second version is an "I" statement where I own my feelings and express my wishes.

If I blame circumstances or other people, I accidentally create camaraderie and invite the other person to commiserate. ("I know! They really didn't give us much time on this project. What's going on with the leadership anyway?").

On the other hand, if I make it clear that I don't want to talk for a specific reason, the other person would have to explicitly and knowingly override my wishes to keep talking to me. For many, that's enough to slow them down.

3. Know what you are willing and not willing to engage with, then stick to that consistently.

I assume you sometimes are willing to talk to your coworker, or at least that you sometimes have to.It's important to know under which circumstances you're open to chatting, and under which you're not. 

It's important to know under which circumstances you're open to chatting, and under which you're not.

Once you've decided on your boundaries, be consistent. Consistency allows your coworker to learn your patterns and prevents confusing mixed messages. For example, maybe you're willing to converse for five minutes first thing in the morning, or during lunchtime, but not at other times. Maybe you're eager to chat in the communal kitchen but not at your desk.

Once you've decided on rules, you have to stick to them. It's like telling your five-year-old they can only have cookies after dinner—you can't cheat and let them have the occasional cookie whenever they want. Five-year-olds will always push your boundaries. So will adults if you're not consistent.

4. Offer an alternative. Make sure to follow through.

If someone is feeling an overwhelming urge to talk to you, they probably have a reason to. Maybe they want to share some exciting news, bond with you, or quell their anxiety or loneliness. This urge isn't likely to just go away, even if they start to notice your unwillingness to talk.

When you offer a concrete alternative, your coworker gets reassurance about your relationship and gets to look forward to a time when you can devote proper attention to them.

Help them out by offering an alternative. Perhaps something like "I have to concentrate on this report right now, but how about we chat at lunchtime—are you free at noon?" Or, if you're friends with the person, "Oh man, I really want to hear your news. I just need to hunker down on this today. Want to get coffee this weekend and catch up?"

When you offer a concrete alternative, your coworker gets reassurance about your relationship and gets to look forward to a time when you can devote proper attention to them. They'll be more likely to be satisfied in the moment and let you get back to work.

Of course, you need to follow through so your coworker knows they can count on your word. If you're flaky, then they'll learn that your behavior and boundaries are fuzzy. They might take it as an open invitation to not respect those lines.

The anti-chatterbox script

What might a quick-and-dirty script sound like?

First, let's think about stage direction—don't face the audience. Instead, keep yourself pointed toward your work. Then:

"Oh, hey, Cathy! I'm sorry—I'm under the gun here for creating a report. I need to concentrate on this right now. Let's catch up at lunch!"

That's it! No need to hedge or be overly apologetic. Your response will seem more offensive if you try to elaborate on how sorry you are. Be direct and confident.

These tips should help you to turn down the volume on your overly chatty coworker.

Don't forget compassion

Meanwhile, let's not forget to use a little compassion. The chatterboxes I've known have all been perfectly good people, including people who are particularly thoughtful and helpful. Maybe they weren't great at reading particular social cues. Or they could have been nervous, overenthusiastic, or struggling with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). They may be going through some awful crisis at home and in need of empathy. You can certainly be a good friend and provide it if that's important to you. Just do it on your own time so you can do justice to your friend's emotional needs and protect your boundaries.

The good news is that using these concrete and direct strategies not only helps you to stay focused but can also help teach your coworker to read an essential workplace social cue.

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Disclaimer

Savvy Psychologist is strictly for informational purposes and doesn’t substitute for mental health care from a licensed professional.

 

About the Author

Jade Wu

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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