Less talkie, more workie.
February 21, 2014 2:22 PM   Subscribe

I work in a small office environment: there's me, two other people who do the same job that I do, my boss, and his administrative person. I genuinely like everyone that I work with, which is wonderful. However, I'm encountering a problem with my boss's administrative person, who I'll call Cathy. Cathy has an irritating habit of cornering me and my co-workers into long "conversations" that eat up a lot of my workday, and I don't know what to do about it.

I say "conversations" because they aren't really conversations; Cathy has a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to talk and talk and talk and talk. The content of these conversations is wide-ranging; she'll rant about work, about home, about medical problems, about pretty much anything. She's the kind of talker who transitions seamlessly from one topic into another without pausing and she tells stories in great detail, leaving zero space for introjection and making it nearly impossible to gracefully exit. An example: today I was the first person to return to the office from lunch. I immediately went into the kitchen area to grab a glass of water. Cathy swooped into the kitchen and began talking at me. I moved from the kitchen toward my office; she followed me. I was stuck listening to her go on and on for almost 30 minutes before another coworker arrived and asked her a question, allowing me to retreat to my office.

I am not the only one who finds it impossible to break free from Cathy once she starts on a rant. The other day my (very polite and sweet) coworker was alone in the office with Cathy and later told me in a gently frustrated way that she finds it very difficult to get work done when she is alone with Cathy in the office.

To make matters worse, Cathy is primarily responsible for answering the telephone. But because Cathy is often sitting in one of my coworkers' offices, talking, rather than sitting at her desk, I - and whichever other coworker Cathy is not monopolizing - end up answering the phone instead. This is a small thing, but my work requires concentration and it is hard to concentrate when I'm constantly being interrupted by having to answer the phone.

I don't want to seem like a bitch, because I really do like Cathy despite this annoying habit of hers, and I don't want to alienate Cathy by directly addressing this with my boss. Do I just have to suck it up and deal? Any tips on gracefully exiting when I find myself the target of a long rant? I am new to this sort of office and I've never dealt with something like this before. Help!
posted by sevensnowflakes to Human Relations (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have a bad habit of doing this and not being super self-aware when it happens.

People are generally open to saying, "Sorry, I'm really busy right now," or glancing at their watches and saying, "Damn, [boss] is going to wonder where I am..." or otherwise just telling me they have shit to do and can't continue the conversation.

If you're sitting in the same open workspace and she's just yammering at you all day, just stop listening. She'll get the message.

Re the phones, Cathy needs to be reminded that she is to stay on the desk at all times so as to do her job, which is being responsible for the phones.

Do not answer the phone for her unless she's on her lunch break or in the bathroom or something. If Cathy gets in trouble for not doing her job because she's socializing in the office, that will hammer home the point better than any idle comment from someone who isn't directly in charge of her.
posted by Sara C. at 2:30 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do I just have to suck it up and deal?

Nope. Practice this:

"It was nice talking with you, Cathy; I need to go work on TASK_OF_THE_DAY"

At the beginning of these conversations, give her five minutes (to be polite), and then interrupt the conversation and walk away. If she doesn't get the hint pretty quickly, she isn't worth being polite to in the future and start reducing the five minutes progressively.

my work requires concentration and it is hard to concentrate when I'm constantly being interrupted by having to answer the phone

Email your manager:

"I've found that my work has been disrupted by answering the phone. I don't think I'm being most effective at COMPANY_NAME by doing this because it interrupts my train of thought on TASK_OF_THE_DAY. I'd like to make sure Cathy is available to take these calls. In the future, I'll be letting these calls go to voicemail in order to take care of them when I'm better prepared."
posted by saeculorum at 2:31 PM on February 21, 2014 [8 favorites]

"I'm sorry, I need to get back to work."
*turn away*
posted by gyusan at 2:32 PM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Bring headphones to work. When she corners you, walk back to your desk, sit down, and interrupt: "sorry to interrupt, Cathy, but I have work to get done and I need to focus now. Talk to you later!" All with a smile. Start putting on your headphones as you say this, so they're on right as you end. Then turn to your computer and start working.

Also: when the phone rings and Carhy doesn't answer it, you'll have headphones on so you won't hear it... or at least you can pretend you don't. Get a nice pair of "closed-ear" headphones to increase comfort and credibility, noise cancelling ones even better (don't leave them in the office though.)

Soon she'll start to realize that when you pick up the headphones you're about to cut her off, and she'll cut herself off. This will only work if you establish a solid pattern of interrupting her while pulling them out, though.

Once she learns that and starts self-correcting, you can use the same phrase while away from your desk, turning to leave after you say it, and soon she'll self correct there, too.
posted by davejay at 2:32 PM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

I feel for you. You may very well get advice along the lines of "Just pull the person aside and say 'Cathy, I don't have time to listen to you talk for as long as you like to talk' ", but if you're avoiding that awkwardness and are looking for some sneaky little tricks, this is what I've done in some situations:

Talker: "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah."
Me [get panic-stricken look on my face]: "OH MY GOD--I just realized I was supposed to call John at [time 10 minutes prior to whatever time it is right then]. I have to do that right now!" [And I pick up my phone or rush back to my desk.]

I think that if you act like you all-of-a-sudden remembered something important, it's totally OK that you interrupted the person and are putting an abrupt end to the conversation (in a context where she can't question you, power through, or get her feelings hurt). Kinda sketchy and not something you can do every time, but it will provide instant relief if you're really desperate.
posted by lovableiago at 2:33 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

You have to tell your boss and your boss has to deal with it.

You also need to decide what your boundaries are (hint: you can't make everyone happy, so you need to choose between the person who doesn't want to work and the person who gives you your paycheck) and enforce them. "I'm so sorry, Cathy, I have to get back to work now. Have a good afternoon!"

She's gonna be mad. Life's tough sometimes.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:33 PM on February 21, 2014 [11 favorites]

and yeah, you're at work. interrupting someone to return to work things is totally okay. someday she will learn that too, so why not be the first to model it?
posted by davejay at 2:34 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a professional, your responsibility is to get your job done, and if there are things in the way, either take care of them yourself, or bring them to the attention of your boss.

Part of your job is enforcing a boundary around your work tasks. If Cathy's feelings are hurt, it's unfortunate, but that's for her to deal with. If you have trouble getting her to respect your boundaries, then you have to have a conversation with your boss. But you need to be the one to say "Cathy, thank you, I can't talk right now because I have some things to do".
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:35 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I work with someone like Cathy and I've had to get comfortable with the idea of being a little bit cold to him. It's hard because it goes against every social skill I've built up in my life, but I can't engage him, nod, say "uh-huh," or ask any small-talk questions about his topic du jour like I would if this were a regular social interaction. If he's at my desk, after a few minutes when I realize I have to take action, I will turn my back to him and start typing or opening files on my computer. This works almost all of the time, and the funny thing? I always feel really rude doing it, but he never seems to take offense. Try just ignoring her after a few minutes and see what she does. Another trick I use is to excuse myself to go to the restroom. We have gendered restrooms and I'm female, so he can't follow me in, but whether this would work in your office I don't know.

The thing is, he does this with everyone in the office, so the managers are well aware of it. They just kind of laugh and say "yep, that's Bill!" It's really up to me to extricate myself, and you may be in the same position, especially given that Cathy is your boss's assistant and that you are new to the office. Try being just a little bit cold, a little closed off, maybe even a little bit rude.
posted by payoto at 2:46 PM on February 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Express your liking for her by greeting her on the way in and out, thanking her for kindnesses, and generally being pleasant but --

1. If you are on your way back to your desk, or to work, or whatever, just interrupt and say, "Sorry, Cathy, I have to get back to x," then walk off and do it. Be pleasant and smile, but don't stay.

2. Don't answer the phone when she isn't there to do it.
posted by bearwife at 2:46 PM on February 21, 2014

If you can't get a word in edgewise, I would smile, hold up your index finger and say that you have to get back to work. Do this enough times and she will get the hint, hopefully.
posted by Fairchild at 3:06 PM on February 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I must admit, I'd love to see you at least make an effort to address it with her before you present it to your boss. Not because you don't have the right to! But just because ... if all she is is talky, I'd rather she at least had a chance to try to settle down if she really doesn't realize it.

Going to the boss is great when you really need intervention; it's a little bit less great when it stops you from developing the really important skill that is setting boundaries with other people in a polite way and feeling okay about it.

You have to develop that callus that lets you give her a quick head nod, gesture as she's talking in the direction you intend to walk or at the work you're going to do, and if she doesn't slow down, and give you an opening, just cut her off and say, "I really have to get back." Don't apologize, don't characterize her, just tell her the actual truth, which is that you need to do your job. If you do it with a smile, like it's not a huge deal, I think you have good odds that she won't be mad. It might take a little time to resolve, but nothing terrible happens when you politely tell people you need to get back to work. It's actually a really good thing to learn to do. And I'd at least try it before you go to the boss.

The phone is a little bit different -- that, you might have to tell the boss, but I'd separate it from the chattiness. If you have to bring that up, maybe just, "Hey, I'm winding up answering the phone a lot when I'm trying to work -- is it okay if I let it go to voice mail when Cathy is away from her desk?"

If it were me, I'd at least appreciate a heads-up and a chance to respond before it became a company thing.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 3:36 PM on February 21, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I understand the reasoning behind the comments about taking the professional route (e.g., talking to your manager), setting boundaries, and that your job—not Cathy's feelings—are your priority. Speaking as "Cathy's" former supervisor, I cannot overstate my support for the headphones recommendations. They are the grown-up and totally appropriate version of putting your fingers in your ears and saying "I'm not listening to you" and will discourage/eliminate interruptions even when you aren't actually listening to anything.

I was not happy when my staff came to me many years ago to complain about/ask me to do something about "Cathy", who was also a "talker" (her kids called her "motormouth Mom). I did not understand why they felt "trapped" into conversations (i.e., Cathy wasn't a visiting in-law, workplace superior, holding them captive in their cubicles) when some version* of "I don't have time to chat right now/have to get back to work" had always worked for me—even in the years before I was her supervisor (*including good-nature teasing). Instead, they were waiting for Cathy to pick up on their cues that the conversation was over, e.g. "she keeps talking even when I stop responding", and simmering/commiserating over her failure to do so (which, frankly, I thought was disrespectful of Cathy).

I spoke with Cathy, of course. In a nutshell, "I need to get back to work" was the signal for Cathy to stop talking asap. Although I didn't mention that staff had come to me (i.e., I said I "had noticed"), I'm sure she assumed as much. Also sure that it hurt her to think that coworkers had been talking about this for some time before coming to me. My point (finally): "hurt feelings" aren't just a side issue.

BTW, headphones are MUCH better for this than ear buds.
posted by she's not there at 5:57 PM on February 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would like to throw in a kind word for the many soundscape apps available these days. I cannot work and listen to someone sing any more than I can work and listen to my colleagues talk.

But I sit happily at my desk with a choo choo train drowning out all the chat and phones ringing.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 6:22 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't answer the phone. Yell, "CATHY! PHONE!" Repeat as necessary until she gets the idea that y'all aren't going to be picking up the slack for her.
posted by jaguar at 6:58 PM on February 21, 2014 [9 favorites]

Yes, I've been increasingly impressed with the way that direct communication overcomes workplace frustrations. I think you should follow all the advice above about interrupting her and saying you need to get back to work. Depending on your style and hers, you can branch out from there into other friendly ways of being direct, e.g. (as she changes topics), "wait! only one story per chat. :) I have to do some work today. Tell me about your gerbils next time."
posted by salvia at 8:30 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

yeah it has to be abrupt. "OH I JUST REALIZED I HAVE A DEADLINE", and then run away, or slap headphones on, some physical gesture that marks you as Not Accessible Now.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:43 PM on February 21, 2014

People who talk non-stop are used to being interrupted. It happens to them all the time, each and every day. In my experience they take it as a matter of course, a natural and normal part of their lives. I don't think Cathy will be as offended by being interrupted as you're fearing.
posted by sam_harms at 10:58 PM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

If Cathy has all this free time for chatting, maybe she needs more tasks at work. Who can assign her some?
posted by ktkt at 12:14 AM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you are really concerned about hurting her feelings, you could tr saying that you don't have time to chat right now, "but how about we take a break at XX time?" Then spend ten minutes with her, and get back to work. Repeat as necessary, and if you don't see results in a week or two, talk to the boss.
posted by rpfields at 2:02 AM on February 22, 2014

Bearwife has it. Be pleasant; if you have to get back to work, tell her; and don't answer the phones for her.

Frankly, I really don't like the headphones suggestion. I always feel like I'm interrupting fellow workers if I have to catch their attention and ask them to remove their headphones. One earbud might be okay, so that you can still hear your coworkers, but two is too much if part of your job involves interacting with them. Actual headphones are for your free time, not for work. Noise cancelling headphones seem entirely inappropriate if you have to interact with coworkers or answer your own phone.
posted by Wet Hen at 4:16 AM on February 22, 2014

I used to work with a person like this. It didn't help to give her an excuse or try to reason with her because she would just start telling you a story related to your excuse. You just have to walk away quickly while she is still talking. If she is in your office you have to walk off to do something somewhere else.

The person I worked with was really very nice and didn't seem at all upset when you just walked away while she was still talking. She was used to it I guess.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:24 AM on February 22, 2014

i use headphones all the time, because office chatter (not directed at me) is simply too distracting.

i also use the pomodoro time management system, which requires me to log all interruptions. so when someone interrupts my work, i take off my headphones and ask them to wait just a minute. then i get my pen and work log, and i record the event. this is slightly rude, but interrupting me is also rude when it's plain i am working. most people will take this hint and be brief. this is for peers, obviously. if my boss wants to interrupt me, then they get immediate attention.

for those that can't take the hint, then they get the next step (usually - i am working on assertiveness) which is to listen to their request/question, ask them to send me an email with the details because i am working on a different task, and i will take care of it a future time x. am i polite as possible here.

this takes care of almost everyone, but just in case, pomodoro also requires timing of work intervals. so even if i end up being talked at for awhile, my timer will eventually go off (audio and visual), and i use that as an opportunity to end the conversation. breaks are timed too, so if someone catches you on break and wants to talk, you have an opportunity to end the conversation easily.

people who continue to abuse my time in this way will get reported to management, along with my work log as documentation. i haven't had to do this (thankfully) since i started using pomodoro, but it would have happened with a couple of past co-workers.
posted by lescour at 8:44 AM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Encourage other staff members to help enforce Cathy answering the phone. Blah, blah, ringing phone Cathy, I'll let you get that, especially as I have to (insert task). Every time you answer the phone, make sure the ringer volume is on High. This behavior has been allowed and has become a habit, but you can get back to the way things should be. I had an aunt who could just talk like that. I learned to abruptly interrupt and say, Gosh, so great to hear about that, but I have to (insert task). Many overtalkers, including me, know we have the issue, and will cooperate in managing it.

Cathy sounds like she needs more work to do. I'd think about how to encourage that to happen.
posted by theora55 at 12:02 AM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would often wear over-the-ear headphones, but with nothing playing on them, when I was busy or concentrating in my large open-plan workplace. Worked just as well and no-one ever knew!
posted by danteGideon at 3:33 AM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

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