Ask a Boss: My Co-worker Talks Nonstop!

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Let me start with a bit of background: I work in an open office environment, which is less than desirable for a host of reasons, but today I am writing to you about something very specific. Three of us sit together in a “pod” comprised of three work stations. The half-walls rise only about two feet up in front of our desktops, so we would literally be staring at each other all day if it weren’t for the fact that we use multiple monitors that provide some visual blockage.

The problem I am having is that I am very distracted by one of my teammates, who talks to herself. All. The. Time. Literally every day, throughout the day. The least offensive is when she opens an email and says, “Uh-oh,” out loud. This happens multiple times a day. Or she will be working on a project and verbalize every step: “Okay, now, let’s take a look at this x-y-z”; “where in the hell is that document?”; “now what are we supposed to do with this?”; and on and on. The worst is when she curses and uses vulgar language such as shit, damn, etc., but luckily the F-bomb has been very rare. The cursing happens when she is unhappy about an assignment, or has to learn something new and it’s the fault of the software that she doesn’t know how to do it, whatever it is.

It’s almost like listening to a play-by-play of everything she is doing that day. If I ask her what she’s talking about, she’ll say something like, “Oh, I wasn’t talking to you,” with a tone of seeming annoyance, as if I interrupted her.

This impacts my ability to get my work done. We work in IT and are developers, and sometimes we need to THINK. It’s virtually impossible to get 30 minutes without a verbalization loud enough to intrude into whatever I’m working on. Complicating matters a bit is that in addition to being a developer, I am also the project manager for all of our work. We have a manager who handles the quarterly reviews, but I am senior to her and give her project assignments and instructions and corrections pertaining to her work.

I’m not sure how to approach this, since she does not actually report to me. I don’t see this as something serious enough to escalate to our manager; I would prefer to handle it myself. I know that one of the reasons I am hesitant is that she is churlish and has a reputation for being difficult. Our own manager warned me about this when I started working here almost five years ago. I would describe it as her not having a filter and being willing to say things to co-workers I would never dream of saying. Basically, I don’t want to piss her off because I have to work with her every day. The nature of our work is very collaborative and we rely on each other all the time.

Can you give me some advice on what to say that might get her to stop and think before verbalizing everything, all day, every day?

I think I get more letters about co-workers who won’t stop talking than nearly any other subject. Loud, babbling co-workers are the scourge of offices across the land.

Your co-worker is somewhat more unusual in that she’s talking to herself rather than trying to have constant conversations with you, but even that isn’t as unusual as you might think.

But that’s cold comfort, of course, so let’s try to help you actually fix this.

First, as someone who shares space with this co-worker, you absolutely have standing to say something about the constant verbal commotion. I know that she’s prickly and you’re wary of inflaming her, but pissed off and quiet might be preferable to the current state of affairs. And really, when what you want to say is so eminently reasonable as “I can’t focus when you keep up a stream-of-consciousness dialogue all day long,” it’s not a great choice to roll over and take it just because you’re afraid that the other person will respond badly. You can’t let yourself be scared of saying a perfectly reasonable thing because you fear that a co-worker (a co-worker who’s junior to you, no less!) will react unprofessionally.

So I really, really urge you to speak up. You could say something like this: “Jane, I’m finding that I’m having a lot of trouble focusing on work when you talk to yourself so frequently. I don’t know if you realize how often you talk to yourself about what you’re working on, but it can be quite distracting. Can I ask you to try to be aware of it and rein it in so that I’m able to focus over here?”

If you’re cringing and thinking that you’d never in a million years say that to Jane because she’d take it badly, a different approach is to try making it about you rather than her. Sometimes reframing a tricky message as “this is just a weird thing about me” can make the message easier both to deliver and to receive, especially if the person you’re saying it to is grumpy. In this case, that could sound like this: “Jane, I’m finding that I have a really high need for quiet while I work. I know that’s not always realistic in an open office like this, but I’m having a hard time focusing when you talk to yourself about your work. Do you think you could stop doing that so that we have more quiet space for focus here?”

Also, what’s the nature of the authority that you have as project manager? Even though Jane doesn’t formally report to you, since you’re senior to her and dole out assignments and feedback, it’s very possible that you have some additional standing to address this — as well as some ability to address any excessive prickliness that might be forthcoming in her response. It’s probably worth talking to your boss and finding out if you actually have more authority here than you think you do. If so, you could be more assertive in this conversation, framing it as “Here’s what I need” rather than “Could I ask you to help me out?”

That said, whatever you say and even if she’s receptive to it, I doubt it’s going to solve the problem overnight. What she’s doing sounds almost like an unconscious tic, and it’s probably not going to be fixed with one conversation. That means that you should be prepared to need to follow up afterward too. But that could be as simple as just saying something in the moment when it’s happening, like, “Hey, I’m having trouble focusing over here. Could you keep it down?”

And because she might really have trouble controlling this, think about whether there’s anything you can do about the physical environment that might mitigate some or all of the problem. For example, is there a spot she could move to where she wouldn’t be so near other people? Is there another constant talker with whom she could sit — off in their own area together? Can you move? As the project manager for your team’s work, you might have standing to ask for, well, if not a more private space (which might be a no-go in a company that has seen fit to place you all out in the open together), possibly a different space.

And, of course, the standard advice with co-workers who make annoying sounds of any kind is to think about whether there’s something you can do to block the noise out. Headphones are the most obvious solution, if your office doesn’t frown on them. If noise-blocking headphones would make this problem go away, you should go for it. But if that’s not practical for some reason, think about whether there’s something else similar you can do to block her out, like a white-noise machine. Your nearby co-workers would probably be grateful.

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Ask a Boss: My Co-worker Talks to Herself Nonstop!