Tone Down Chatty Colleagues — and Bosses

Meaningful dialogue is key to moving work forward, but colleagues who monopolize your time with long-winded explanations, distracting information and too many social calls can sabotage productivity.
It can even be a source of stress to feel overburdened by someone else’s relentless chatter. The quality of your work may suffer as you lose focus. Relationships can deteriorate if you grow resentful of interruptions. And, career advancement can stall if you are associated with a time waster. Whether you’re suffering from a too-talkative colleague, supervising a Chatty Cathy, or even working for a verbose boss, there are ways to set conversation boundaries.
Dialogue or distraction?
Dialogue with colleagues typically indicates healthy workplace dynamics. You secure important information, gain advice and better understand organization culture. Where workplace conversation bleeds over into distraction is often when one person does all the talking, the conversation is not at all work related, or it comes at a time when you really need to focus on the task at hand.
A national survey conducted by Harris Poll for CareerBuilder queried more than 2,000 human resource managers about common productivity killers. Three of the top ten had to do with unwelcome conversation and talking in the form of gossip, unexpected visits and noisy coworkers.
What to do
Sensitivity is paramount when setting conversation boundaries; one person’s interruption is another person’s collaboration. Consider these guidelines.
  • Start with compassion. When someone drones on and keeps you from getting things done, sympathy may not be your first reaction. However, many people talk too much when they feel nervous, to garner more attention or because they fail to pick up on social cues. Knowing what motivates your talker can help you address it.   
  • Evaluate the context. Specific circumstances can encourage excessive talking. A junior employee may need to better understand differences between social and work settings. If excessive talking represents a change in someone’s behavior, they may be experiencing increased stress at work or home. Or, perhaps the colleague came from an organization with a more social culture, or even a department within your organization with a chattier culture. They may need a little time to adapt.
  • Use social cues. Your first response to too much conversation or lingering at your desk will be subtle social cues. Maybe you stand up. Stop making eye contact. Return your attention to your desk or computer screen. You might comment about how late it’s gotten or how much you need to get done. If none of that is working, the best solution, ironically, is to talk about it.
  • Address the issue head on.
With a colleague, let them know how much you value interacting with them and then share that you need uninterrupted time to meet workplace demands. Offer to chat later over lunch or coffee. You might say, “You have great perspectives and I enjoy talking with you, but I need to limit distractions right now to stay on task. Let’s focus our conversations during the day on shared projects and save longer chats for when we both take a break.”
If the individual is someone you supervise, meet privately and approach the conversation as a coaching opportunity. The more specific you can be about what behaviors are acceptable and which are distracting, or even inappropriate for the workplace, the easier it will be for the person to change. Provide guidelines around how much purely social chatter you consider reasonable and help the person learn how to make business-related points succinctly.
  • Consider creating workplace guidelines. If excessive chatter is a team-wide issue, you can create guidelines together around sociable conversation (how often, where and when). You can also talk candidly about how much of an “open door” policy the team desires. Brainstorming can also help employees who are most easily annoyed or distracted to consider ways they can adjust as well. That might include using headphones, closing their office door at certain times or even posting a small sign on their desk or cubicle that indicates they are engaged in focused work time.
  • When it’s your boss. Frankly, it can be a real ego boost to “hold court” and deliver your wisdom knowing that direct reports will patiently listen. A study by Harvard University found that talking a lot (especially about yourself) can trigger sensations of reward similar to those of food, money or sex. Other leaders may ramble because they feel nervous or even obligated to “talk to the troops.”
This is clearly a tricky situation. But there are options worth trying. For starters, model brevity in your own communication with your boss. You might start a conversation with, “I know you are busy, so I’ve prepared this summary to get your thoughts in just ten minutes.” Even hearing that time window sends a subtle message your boss may pick up. You could also say, “I have a client meeting in ten minutes, but I just need your initial thoughts on this.”
If you have a close and candid relationship with your boss, a more direct approach could work. Express how busy the whole team is and that many are concerned about meetings stretching longer than desired. Then ask, “Do you think it’s possible to make our presentations more succinct and cut the weekly meeting from two hours to one?”
Open, honest conversation focused on shared goals is the gold standard of workplace communication and can boost productivity. But too much talking can also decrease focus, calm and efficiency. The trick is to find the level that enables relationship building without burdening others with unwelcome chatter.

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