How do I get my coworker to stop barging in on my and everyone else's conversations?
October 25, 2011 8:52 AM   Subscribe

A coworker keeps intruding on everyone's conversations. How do I get them to stop?

At work, the teams sit together. One person on my team has this almost compulsive need to intrude on everyone's conversations. For example, if I turn around to talk to a colleague about something, this person will intrude and try to offer their help. The problem is that their help isn't necessary; we're plenty capable of dealing with things - yet they still want to interject with their thoughts. And it's usually ends up focusing the conversation on that person, rather than the actual issue at hand.

And it's not really a desire to want to help out. If people are laughing or talking elsewhere in the office, they'll get up and go over to try to get in on the joke. It's happened repeatedly and it's really getting to a breaking point. I've tried being relatively short and curt when talking to them, but I don't really think they get the point.

This sort of thing happens multiple times a day, so it's really becoming a problem. How do I tell this person to back off without hurting their feelings and keeping our team working well? I interact with this person on a daily basis so I can't just tell them to piss off, and our company is small enough that I can't just ignore them. Perhaps the answer is just to grin and bear it, but I wanted to at least bring it up here to see if people have ideas.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried 'this is a private conversation' or 'its ok name, we don't need any help'? Personally I'd just ignore the person and act like I couldn't hear them when they're interrupting but treat them normally at all other times.
posted by missmagenta at 8:57 AM on October 25, 2011

There are two ways to approach this that I can think of:

1. The curt way. Every time he pulls this, say "excuse me, Bob and I were having a conversation."

2. The compassionate way. The guy may be very awkward socially and not be enclued as to how to interact gracefully. Take him out to lunch and explain that he needs to back off.
posted by adamrice at 8:59 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe you can try to ignore whatever comment they want to add; basically pretend that you didn't hear them and continue focusing on the conversation with the person you are trying to have a conversation with. Or is there a private meeting area/room that you can retreat to when you know you have to focus on discussion without interruption.

I think it's the huge downfall of such a "collaborative" environment (what my company calls it). There have been a lot of distractions and loud talkers in general at times. So much so that I've considered talking to HR to see if they could put together a "collaborative environment rules and etiquette" sort of guide to distribute to everyone.
posted by foxhat10 at 9:05 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine gently puts people off when they offer uninvited advice by calmly saying, "Thank you, I'll take it under advisement," and then turning back to what he was doing. Try that -- grind to a halt when the co-worker butts in, let them have their say, then simply say "Thanks for your thoughts," and then turn back to who you were talking to without further acknowledgement. They've had their say, you've told them you'll think about it, done.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Maybe the more they feel excluded, the more they feel like they need to interrupt or butt in to have interaction in the office? Can you try to include them sometimes, and/or take some extra time to talk to them, and then when they interrupt you at other times then you can deflect a bit easier? In a small team and office like that it's going to be pretty hard to do a "thanks for your thoughts" and not seem kind of like a jerk - if the person is really terrible then it makes sense, if just a little misguided and annoying I'd try honey before anything else.
posted by mrs. taters at 9:27 AM on October 25, 2011 [11 favorites]

Has the chattiness been impacting this co-worker's work output? If so, you could approach it from a performance perspective. Say something like, "Hey, I understand that you really enjoy the social atmosphere here, but we are concerned that it has been impacting your performance. Do you think you could tone it down a little?"
posted by nikkorizz at 9:32 AM on October 25, 2011

This person is part of your team, right? I wouldn't recommend being rude. It sounds like they are just trying to be a team player, and may have gotten feedback from their boss that they need to fit in better.

If they're interrupting work, a "thanks, but we've got it covered" should work, with a conversation to clarify scope if it persists.

If they're trying to be part of office social times and it's not interfering with their/your work, I think you've got to politely tolerate it. It sounds like they're trying to make friends. Forming a clique at work that excludes a close coworker isn't nice or professional. If you can find a time to have a private conversation about specific office norms they're violating, that could work. Like, "I know different offices have different cultures, but here we don't visit office parties in the department across the hall."
posted by momus_window at 9:40 AM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

Maybe you could turn to them sometime and ask for their input.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 9:44 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Cut it off right at the beginning when they start to say something, and use body language.

Hold up a hand with the universal "stop" sign or even making a T with your hands to say "time out."

Interrupting co-worker: "You know, if you need XYZ, you could always..."

You (holding up hand): "Dave, sorry, let me stop you there for a second. I want to get to the end of my thought with Fred here, otherwise, I'm going to get confused."

Interrupting co-worker: "Oh, OK. Sorry."

You: "Anyway, Fred, as I was saying..."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:57 AM on October 25, 2011

Oh jeez. I have totally been this person - I can be kind of socially awkward and am always worrying that I'm being "left out" of something. In my last job almost everyone else in the office was part of one team, except for me and maybe 2 other people. I was sharing a work area with a big group of people who were all on the team except me, and I realized eventually that I was butting into their conversations all the time just out of feeling sort of lonely and excluded. It finally hit me that this is what I was doing when one of the women on the team replied to one of my interruptions with "The whole office does not need to be working on this. Just Bob and me." I got the message.
In situations where it's not work-related (someone is telling a story, a joke, etc.) there's probably less you can do. Does the butter-inner get left out of the fun/social stuff in the office if s/he doesn't actively intrude? Is there a way you could make him/her feel more included from time to time so that annoying interruptions become less "necessary"?
posted by naoko at 10:32 AM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

People like this (me included), are sometimes oblivious to body language and being ignored. It just makes them try harder. Saying something off-to-the-side over lunch or something can help.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 11:07 AM on October 25, 2011

I've been on both sides of this situation, and still wonder if I'm "that guy" sometimes. From these awkward experiences, I've found that the compassionate approach is the most practical. Being kind & understanding & "doing the right thing" is all well and good, but preaching that virtue can lead to us forgetting that this is an effective approach that delivers results.

If the response to this behavior is delivered with anger & hostility, the interrupter can easily dismiss this reaction as a byproduct of a "mean person", or someone who hasn't been adequately impressed by their involvement, and is interpreted as a sign to continue interrupting, but do a better job at it.

If the response can be delivered in a calmer manner (something that falls squarely into the easier-said-than-done category), there's a better chance of it being interpreted as "I upset that nice person". They may just write it off and continue being difficult, but that's not anything that could be remedied with added hostility.

The more they get the message that they are upsetting people, as opposed to doing something "wrong", the more likely they are to change, as opposed to trying to show the world why their behavior is "right". There's a chance they won't change, and it's much easier to identify when there's less hostility coloring people's actions.
posted by yorick at 11:21 AM on October 25, 2011

Seconding blue_wardrobe, because that's me, too. I just want to be included, and I realize afterward that it was awkward. As it's happening, I have no idea of how rude I'm being. Go with the compassionate route, because anything else will make him try harder.
posted by doyouknowwhoIam? at 1:54 PM on October 25, 2011

thanks, we've got it covered.
posted by xammerboy at 7:32 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

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