Coworker communication causing consternation
February 6, 2019 7:05 PM   Subscribe

One of my coworkers in my new workplace has a communication style that I find absolutely exhausting. He is, by all accounts, a perfectly decent person, but I come out of every conversation with him (and even sometimes conversations I'm not part of - if I'm overhearing something elsewhere in the office, etc) with my muscles tense, pulse racing, and feeling bad because I did not express myself as well as I could have. How do I deal?

The communication style in question is a rather extreme form of "talks very fast, very loud, and with absolute (apparent) conviction he's right". I can deal with any 2 of of those 3 at once, but with all three I'm overwhelmed both trying to keep up with what he's saying and formulate my own responses. I get defensive and laconic, to the point where it's starting to hamper our ability to work effectively together. How can I get past this and adapt so I can work well with him (and others like him)?
posted by btfreek to Work & Money (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I like talking more quietly and slowly around people like that.
posted by crunchy potato at 7:07 PM on February 6 [7 favorites]

Not to threadsit, but I was going to add this to my extended question - I am usually a quieter, milder person (and a young woman, and this coworker is none of those things) and I think part of my problem (with the muscles tensing, etc) is that I am subconsciously trying to mirror this guy's loud-and-fastness whenever he comes by. So if anyone has any tricks to try and short-circuit that reaction I'm all ears as well.
posted by btfreek at 7:12 PM on February 6

Ugh. You have my sympathies. I've run across a few of these in my career. You don't say anything about the quality of your relationship with your co-worker or whether or not the guy is nasty vs well-meaning and clueless, so I'm going to assume there is no direct animosity between you and the guy is not deliberately trying to intimidate you. I'm also going to assume that he communicates in the same way with others in the office.

With those caveats, I have a couple of suggestions:

-It's a small thing, but I find when dealing with people like that, it helps to turn my body and face ever so slightly to the side, rather than facing them straight on. That way, I don't feel like their words and emotions are blasts of energy being directed directly at me. I also focus on my breath and make sure to breath deeply and slowly while listening.

-Try not to listen in on his conversations with others if they bother you. Get up and go to the washroom, put on headphones, do whatever you need to distance yourself.

-Also, if you ever feel like you did not express yourself properly in an important conversation, it's totally okay to follow up with an e-mail saying something like "following up on our call, I had a couple of other points I didn't get a chance to raise..."

-If you have a good relationship with the guy, and only if you feel comfortable, you might consider taking him aside, and maybe over a cup of coffee, bringing up the subject of communication styles and how they can have different effects on different people. You could tell him that you've noticed he's passionate about the subjects he's discussing but that his energy can make it hard for other people to get a word in edgewise. (This might be particularly effective after you've sent one of the follow-up e-mails mentioned above.) Sometimes people genuinely have no clue how they come across and this guy might be noticing people distancing themselves from him and have no idea why.

Good luck, I know that situations like this are not easy.
posted by rpfields at 7:32 PM on February 6 [4 favorites]

His supervisor should be having a word with him about different communication styles and working with him to develop awareness in making sure that all perspectives and voices are being given space to contribute in conversation--is this something you can bring up with his supervisor? I've done this for/with employees before, happily.
posted by stellaluna at 7:47 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Do you have enough flexibility in your duties that you could find a valid reason to leave the area when he's talking to your neighbors? Maybe you could keep an ongoing stack of errand-type tasks that you could get away to do while he's around.

(I was just flashing back to my job in the education outreach program. Once a week I worked in our materials archives, which were in a Quonset hut between a scientific dairy facility and a building being used for storage. There was little heat in the winter, one part of the roof leaked, and there was an occasional mouseguest, but boy, I loved those Thursdays when I didn't have to deal with a single son of Adam or daughter of Eve. The lunchtime dance parties were epic.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:24 PM on February 6

talks very fast:
repeat back what he's said, but leave out some points, make him repeat the points
"hang on, you were saying"

very loud:
visibly wince when he starts
"don't have to shout"
"easy, easy"

with absolute (apparent) conviction he's right:
don't respond, just leave a big fat silence hanging
"hmmm, could be"
"that's possible"
"that's one way of looking at it"
posted by at at 8:52 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]

I can think of two colleagues, maybe three, I had this experience with at my then-new workplace, but I can honestly say that after a few months my ears/mind adjusted and now I can follow what they are saying without getting tense/distracted/exhausted. I think my mind needed time to get accustomed to their styles.
posted by soakimbo at 9:01 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]

Humans use mirroring as a key component of communication - the non verbal component is at least as important as the verbal component.

Mismatches in state causes tension - A talks loud but B talks soft. A looks at B's eyes, but B is looking away. A is happy and smiling, while B is morose.

This tension is "resolved" when one person changes state to match the other, or when they decide to part ways instead. Each person has a threshold of discomfort they are happy to tolerate, and it's the person with the lower threshold that chooses to mirror first. This plays into the dynamics of power and influence (people with lower influence and power will mirror the state of those they perceive as having higher influence and power as a way of creating harmony with them)

It seems you are always choosing to mirror this loud person.

Sometimes the difference in threshold is not great. If you stick to your own communication style, it's highly likely they will eventually switch and mirror you. It works with children and it surprisingly also works well with many adults too.

Of course you could have just met an unfortunate non-neurotypical person who is unable to pick up on social cues, in which case all this will be lost on him and he just goes through life set on "loud" all the time...
posted by xdvesper at 9:03 PM on February 6 [9 favorites]

You might try taking notes if it's a work conversation...this allows you to focus and gives you a reason to ask him, in a milder tone, to repeat himself so you don't miss the fast paced part. Which can let you relax a little.

Other nonverbal cues could be furrowing your brow, tilting your head, and otherwise indicating that he is acting confusingly. You can also put a hand up and say nicely "Wait, I didn't get that" or what have you.

Chances are his style masks some insecurity, but that's his problem. Your job is to get him to communicate work information in a way you can respond to.

Non-work or non-you conversations with him are optional; you can use headphones or go take a walk or otherwise ignore it if you want.
posted by emjaybee at 9:24 PM on February 6

Is it possible to mostly talk to this person via text?

I'll say that I have a person just like this in my group, and it turns out that he has hearing loss (from a previous job). I think someone eventually told him (maybe via a manager) and his partner has been helping him modulate his voice.
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:30 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]

Hi, I'm a fast talker. I greatly appreciate when my colleagues ask me to slow down, because it takes a lot of conscious effort for me to slow my speech and sometimes I forget.

There is nothing wrong with asking your colleague to slow down when he's talking.
posted by nerdfish at 4:13 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]

I'm a loud talker because my impaired hearing wasn't diagnosed until I was well into middle age. I do try to moderate it, but it's difficult. You can ask him to speak more softly and slower. But I think it's most likely that he doesn't listen or consider what you say and, of course, that's miserable. Minimize contact. Follow anything of any importance with an email summarizing your understanding.
posted by theora55 at 6:16 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]

I think you might also try to learn to turn out conversations that you’re not a part of—it’s hard to not overhear something, but if you are not involved, you might want to control your reaction to what you hear.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:38 AM on February 7

Yes! I know this guy! When it happens I recognize that they’re probably feeling anxious or out of control so I try to lighten the mood with a joke. And I laugh and say “ok you’ve got to slow down, I’m a deep thinker” or “whoa there partner you’re off to the races but I’m still dealing with step A.”

You don’t have to have an answer right away. It’s ok not to know. Validate that for yourself.

Some fast thinker just can’t help it - they just think that fast. I have one guy at work who thinks faster than me especially with back of the envelope calculations so I just wait for him to come to his conclusion and then back-explain it to me. You’re doing great.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:47 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]

I would make some kind of teasing reference to speed, then write things down. "Whoa, cowboy!! Rein it in a bit.... You said which caused , then what?" and write things down as you repeat.
posted by CathyG at 10:18 AM on February 7

So... I've had problems with this, especially when trying to understand complex issues. My key phrase is: "Can I pause you there?" and then restate what is being said to confirm understanding. This gives me time to understand, think about a sensible response and will also inevitably slow down the conversation, all in a very professional way.
posted by apcmwh at 1:29 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]

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