advice

Ask a Boss: My Colleague Won’t Shut Up!

Dear Boss,

I have a colleague who is verbose. In any conversation where someone raises a work-related issue, he uses this in order to bludgeon the other party into submission. He leaves no space whatsoever for the other person to talk; he monologues. It is as if he has taken the traditional concept of a filibuster and attempted to apply it to working life. (Not kidding — he has gone on for 20–30 minutes.) And if the other party tries to get a word in edgewise, he shouts at them that he’s not done talking, and then continues.

For example, we had a conference call about a specific work program, which was supposed to incorporate my work group’s input. He gave us an update, and my boss (who is above him in the hierarchy although not currently in his line) began pointing out issues and asking questions. He interrupted her and monologued on the topic for 20 minutes, leaving no space for her to speak (and snapping at her “let me finish” when she tried). When he finally paused and she began asking another question, he told us time was up and he had to go on another call. It really does feel like a deliberate filibuster rather than a guy who tends to run on long.

 In chitchat he is slightly more verbose than others but only slightly, and he leaves plenty of room for banter. The more likelihood of conflict, the more verbose he gets. And when someone does raise an issue, they are in for a 20-minute torrent of words.

 He works in another office, so it hasn’t been a huge problem for me to date; I only deal with it once every few months (although I do hear about it from my colleagues in that office). But I just found out that we will shortly be working in the same office — on the same team, no less! I like my manager, but I don’t see any likelihood that she’ll control him. How can I manage my confrontations with him? I can be a talker myself when put to the test, but frankly I have way too much to do to give him a taste of his own medicine!

Your colleague sounds like a delight!

Are you willing to address it head-on? Ideally, a manager would step in and deal with this but since apparently no one will, your best bet might be simply to call him out on it yourself and ask him to stop. I’m sure you’re not eager to initiate a conversation with this guy, lest you be lectured at for half an hour, but there’s potentially real value in clearly telling him to cut it out at a time when he’s not mid-soliloquy.

You noted that he’s okay with social chitchat, so you might even take him to coffee when he first joins your office and talk to him about it in that setting. If you can establish the vibe as a friendly one, it might — might — make him more willing to hear what you say. Or he might steamroll right over you, but we won’t know until you try.

I’d say this: “Hey, now that we’re going to be working together more closely, I wanted to ask you something. I’ve noticed that when we’re talking about work, you tend to talk for a long time and don’t really let me respond. It’s made it tough in the past when what I need isn’t a long delivery of information, but a back-and-forth and exchange of ideas. I’ve tried to cut in sometimes, and you’ve snapped at me and even yelled. We’re going to need to have back-and-forth to move projects forward, so I want to ask you to be aware of it and make more of a point to let me and others have time to respond and share our own thinking.”

It almost certainly won’t be the first time he’s heard that he’s a domineering conversationalist and so there’s at least some chance that he’ll acknowledge that it’s an issue and maybe even be reasonably decent about saying he’ll pull back the sea of words. Of course, he also sounds like a conversational bully, so it’s also possible that he’ll just be an ass about it. If he is, just say, “Well, I hope you’ll think about it” and end the conversation. And keep in mind that even if it goes that way, you haven’t necessarily failed; he still may rein himself in in the future — at least with you — because bullies often respect people who stay firm and unruffled by them.

From there, regardless of what he does, I’d be very deliberate about how you structure future conversations. For example, at the start of meetings, you could announce that you need to get through topics A, B, and C, will be devoting ten minutes to each, and will wrap up promptly in 30 minutes, and that you want to give everyone a chance to talk so you’re asking people to limit their remarks. If you need an answer from him on something, give him a time limit up-front by saying something like, “James, can you give us a one-minute rundown on X, and then Larissa will tell us about Y?” or “Can I get your quick thoughts on X and then use our remaining time to tell you what I’m grappling with?” In other words, give him explicit boundaries about the time you’ve allotted him and see what he does with that.

And importantly, don’t be shy about interrupting him. If he snaps at you to let him finish, calmly say, “We’re running short on time so I need to cut in.” If he keeps going or shouts at you and you have enough standing to take control and loudly say “No, I need to stop you there,” that’s ideal. But if you don’t have the standing to do that (and realistically you may not), then you’re stuck where everyone with awful, work-impeding co-workers are stuck: working around him or asking your manager to intervene. You noted that you don’t think your manager will assert herself, but his behavior is egregious enough that you might at least be able to get her blessing for you and others to simply leave meetings when he’s at his worst.

And for the record, your manager really should step in. It’s not okay for someone to regularly filibuster his co-workers, and your manager is doing all of you a disservice — including him — by staying out of it.

Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to askaboss@nymag.com.

Ask a Boss: My Colleague Won’t Shut Up!