‘My Co-worker Talks Too Much!’

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Photo: Ryan McVay/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I need help knowing how to politely say “go away.” I frequently get trapped in work conversations and can’t find my way out of them. Blame it on a lifetime of being a people-pleaser. Can you please give me a script I can use to extricate myself? Here are some recurring examples:

Example 1: A co-worker passes my cubicle and feels the need to update me on the ongoing custody dispute with his child’s mother. I can’t leave (I’m already in my own cubicle) and no one interrupts his monologue (we’re in a semi-private part of the building). This happens two to three times a month for about 30 minutes at a time.

Example 2: A pushy salesman who used to have our business wants it back very badly. Every interaction with him has a sense of forced intimacy. He tells me about his kids, his weekend, his interests. He signs his emails “Your friend.” At the end of a meeting, he refuses to shake hands and hugs me instead. His company does a nice job but they’re not the cheapest and I have no wish to increase the amount of contact I have with him.

Please help me learn to be firm!

The great thing about being at work is that you have an easy built-in excuse that everyone will believe: You have work to do.

And really, you probably do have work to do, and your boss probably would not be thrilled to find out you’re having lengthy conversations about your co-worker’s custody battle multiple times a month. Or, depending on your boss and the type of job you’re in, maybe she wouldn’t care as long as you’re getting all your work done … but I bet she’d be concerned that you don’t feel you can erect boundaries to protect your work time.

Sometimes people in your situation — especially people-pleasers, but I think a lot of people struggle with this — get so focused on wanting to be kind or polite that they let it trump their obligation to use their work time on, you know, work. To be clear, it’s not that you can never chit-chat at work. Of course you can! But when you’re regularly letting yourself get drawn into lengthy conversations without knowing how to gracefully exit them, odds are pretty good that it’s bumping up against time when you’d be better off focusing on your job.

It really isn’t rude to protect your work time. No reasonable colleague is going to hold it against you when you explain you need to get back to work. Here are a few ways to do it:

Use a white lie. You have to make a phone call, have to prepare for a phone call you’re expecting in a few minutes, need to run to a meeting, or you’re on deadline. You can say “Sorry, I’m on a deadline — can’t talk much now!” or “Well, I need to get back to these numbers — thanks for stopping by!” with real warmth, and it will not be weird. (And while I think the interruptions you’re struggling to field aren’t about work, if people are interrupting you about work issues too, say something like, “I’m in the middle of finishing something, but can I stop by your office later when I’m at a better stopping point?”)

Set a time limit at the start of the conversation. When your chatty co-worker shows up in your doorway, say something like, “Just to warn you, I’ve only got five minutes before I’ve got to get on a call.” And if he’s still going when those five minutes are up, jump in and say, “Hey, sorry to cut you off. I’ve got to make that call. I hope this gets better soon — I know it’s been rough.”

Send physical signals. If someone stops by when you’re in the middle of something, saying “just a second” and continuing to type a few sentences before you look up will signal you’re not particularly free. Similarly, physically standing up when a conversation has dragged on too long — maybe with some papers in your hand or while saying that you need to grab something off the printer — will often bring the conversations to a natural close. And if you have an extra chair in your office where people often settle in for a long chat, it might be wise to get rid of the chair.

If you feel awkward about setting these sorts of boundaries, think about how you feel when someone tells you that it’s not a great time for them to talk. Assuming they’re polite about it, you’re probably not offended or put off, right? Same thing here — people are unlikely to think you’re being terribly rude simply because you need to focus on work.

If you’re worried that suddenly pulling back from long chats will come across as odd or chilly, when you didn’t used to object to them, you can address the situation more broadly. If you can credibly claim that you’re in an especially busy period, that’s one way to do it (as in, “I’m swamped these days, so sorry if I seem unavailable all the time”). Or you can just say, “Hey, just to let you know, I’m trying to focus better during the day so I probably won’t chat as much as we used to.”

And about that salesman: You don’t actually have to agree to those meetings just to be polite. Maybe it’s part of your job to meet with him periodically, but I’ve found a lot of people agree to sales meetings because it feels rude not to. If that’s the case with you and you know you’re not interested in giving work to him, it’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t think a meeting makes sense right now” or “I’m swamped and can’t put anything on my calendar” or “We’re happy with our current vendor and plan to stay with them for now, but thanks for the offer.” In fact, I’d argue it’s actually considerate, not rude, to decline the meeting if you know you’re not going to give him your business; let him focus his time where it’s more likely to pay off. (But if you do agree to meet with him, you do not have to subject yourself to unwanted embraces. When he goes in for a hug, step back, stick out your hand for a handshake, and say, “I’m not much of a hugger, but it was good to see you.” You can say this even though you’ve hugged him in the past. It would be wildly inappropriate for him to give you a hard time about that and if he does, have no qualms about taking him off your vendor list.)

The point with all of this is that you are in control of your own time (and in the case of the salesman, space), and you are allowed to make the best decisions about it for your work. In fact, you’re really obligated to protect your work time, and thinking about it that way might make it easier to do.

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‘My Co-worker Talks Too Much!’