Overly talkative colleagues might not seem like a big deal, but over time they can come to feel like a curse. They sap your productivity and fill the time with aggravating blather.
If you have a colleague like this, you may view working from home during the pandemic as a welcome respite. A return to the office is a reality for many, so what are some coping strategies?
Try to understand why they do it
Endless chatter is often a sign of insecurity and unmet needs. If, for example, they don't get much attention from the boss, providing them with the recognition they crave may lessen the chatter. You could even tell your manager that the person feels underappreciated.
Similarly, if they lack confidence, telling them they're doing a good job may calm them down and reduce the talk. Finally, they may just be lonely. In which case, try to be sympathetic and give them more of the interaction they need.
Talk to your colleagues — and the person
You may have become so wound up by the chatterbox that you're convinced the person is an unbearable irritation. As a result, everything they say annoys you. So, do a straw poll. Ask your colleagues if they have the same view. If they don't, then perhaps you should make the effort to change. But if they do, ask them to share their coping strategies. Knowing that others share your frustrations can help.
Try to find the good in what they say
Small talk in offices is not just a distraction from work. It functions as a social enabler and helps to build bridges and networks. Politicking and even gossip can be viewed as a kind of informal workplace intelligence.
So step back, be objective, and ask yourself if there's value in what the person says. Can any of it be beneficial to you? Can you nudge them to focus on useful areas?
Have some coping strategies ready
Every talker needs a listener. So, if you know that you are going to have to deal with them, go in prepared — with an exit strategy before you start. Often this just means having a few prepared lines. Thus, after three minutes you might say, "I'm sorry, Mike. I've got to make a call." Or "Great catching up, but I need to finish off a document before lunch."
You might even begin the conversation with the end by saying, "Have you got a minute? I'm about to jump on a call, but I wanted to clear something up first." These work equally well if they start the conversation. The point is not to be scrabbling around for an unconvincing excuse to leave.
Make them aware of the issue
Many people who exhibit problem behaviours at work have no idea of the impact they have on colleagues. Indeed, unbelievable as it may seem, they may not even realise they're doing it. So, take them aside and explain that you think they're a great colleague and doing a fantastic job but that sometimes their chatter gets in the way of work.
Here it helps if you make it about you rather than them. So instead of saying, "You talk too much," you might say, "We all love the social side of the office. But conversation is getting in the way of work. So, let's focus on the job."
Consider being blunt
People who are self-obsessed are often self-obsessed to the point where they have very thick skin. So, you may be able to be quite forthright and dispense with socially pleasant and circumlocutory subterfuge. Indeed, politeness may bounce straight off them.
If this is the case, you may be able to just cut them off and say, "Sorry, I need to do work now." Or, if it's in a meeting, virtual or in person, "Thank you. But we must give Beth a chance to talk." Finally, if you meet in an office corridor, you can just walk away. You have a job to do — and your job is not listening to them.
If they tend to boast, maybe you can learn something
Tireless self-promoters are a particular kind of talker. Here again, it's worth asking colleagues what they think — and interrogating your own feelings. You might resent the person because you're naturally modest and they're confident, outspoken, and good at talking themselves up.
In which case, perhaps you can learn from them. On the other hand, if they are merely an insufferable self-publicist, you should ignore them. You should not attack them directly, as this is unlikely to reflect well on you.
Minimise your exposure to them
There have to be some upsides to having a dozen communications channels at work — and this is one of them. It's the opposite of normal good practice, but send an email instead of talking to them. Or steer them to discuss issues on Slack, Trello, WhatsApp, etc.
Remember that it's much easier to leave written communications unanswered. Also, if you are returning to work flexibly, you may wish to fit your days in the office around theirs.
You might think that endless talk is so irritating that ignoring it is not an option. But actually this is often about how you present it to yourself. If you feel that the chatter is beyond your control and being imposed on you, it's likely to annoy you a great deal. But if you take time out and coolly and objectively weigh up the various options and decide, all things considered, that ignoring it is the least damaging course of action, then you're back in control. You're doing nothing, but it's your decision, not theirs.
— Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.