How to Set Boundaries with a Chatty Colleague

How to Set Boundaries with a Chatty Colleague

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You might think you’re being generous or patient by listening to a chatty coworker talk endlessly, but you’re simply letting resentment fester that’s toxic to your emotional well-being and productivity. The author offers advice for setting boundaries with a talkative colleague in a compassionate, diplomatic way that still allows you to get your work done: 1) Preempt their request, 2) drive towards a close, 3) perfect the art of interruption, 4) come from your perspective, 5) direct dialogue to a certain time, and 6) have a big picture conversation.

Charlotte arrived at our coaching session frazzled and distraught. “I can’t stand it anymore,” she huffed, throwing her hands up. Charlotte explained that she had had another meeting with her chatty counterpart on the data science team. While she generally enjoyed working with this colleague, Charlotte felt frustrated that their planning sessions regularly ran 20 to 30 minutes over the scheduled time, causing her to be late for her other appointments. Charlotte’s colleague tended to ramble and blather on and on, talking in circles about their analytics, not allowing anyone else to get a word in edgewise.

You may relate to Charlotte’s situation — at some point in our careers, we’ve all encountered a talkative colleague. They may be the person who constantly pings you on work messenger throughout the day, who drops by your desk unannounced to monologue about their weekend, or they’re the one who calls you up saying they need to chat for 10 minutes (which turns into an hour).

As Charlotte’s coach, it was clear to me that she needed to set boundaries with her data science counterpart, yet when I brought that up, Charlotte was concerned. “I know he’s wasting my time, and that’s annoying. But I don’t want to be rude or mean by cutting him off. I still have to work with him, and I can’t have him hate me.” Charlotte’s resistance didn’t surprise me and is common among many of the professionals and leaders I coach. As high-achievers who are also highly sensitive (what I call sensitive strivers), they are highly attuned to emotional dynamics and empathetic to others’ needs. While these qualities can make sensitive strivers strong leaders, they can also morph into people-pleasing and conflict avoidance.

If you fear that setting boundaries with the over-talker in your life would offend them or otherwise rupture your relationship, consider the cost of continuing to tolerate this behavior. You might think you’re being generous or patient by listening to them on end, but you’re simply letting resentment fester that’s toxic to your emotional well-being and productivity. While people over-talk for many reasons (ego, anxiety, and disorganization, to name a few), you have a responsibility to yourself and to the rest of your team to set limits in a compassionate, diplomatic way that still allows you to get your work done. Here are a few ways to do that.

Preempt their request

Take a moment to think about the loquacious colleagues you work with on a regular basis. Identifying these individuals ahead of time allows you to anticipate and better prepare for interactions with them. At the beginning of your meeting or conversation, clearly state your boundary. Specifically, let them know how much time you have available to speak. You might say, “I only have 10 minutes to chat right now” or “I have a hard stop at the top of the hour.” You don’t necessarily need to provide an explanation as to why you have to hop off. Your need to rest, take a break, or get your tasks done is enough justification. It’s important that you adhere to your boundary, ending at the time you said you needed to, for instance. If you don’t, you teach the other person that it’s okay not to respect your requests or take them seriously.

Drive towards a close

Let’s say you have told your colleague that you have another meeting at the top of the hour. As you approach the 45 minute mark of your meeting, explicitly flag it and begin summarizing. That could sound like, “I have 15 minutes left to chat. With the time we have remaining, let’s shift toward discussing next steps. My key takeaways from this conversation are that you’ll handle X and I’ll handle Y.” You can also use a coaching approach, asking a question of the other person such as, “We’re getting to the end of our time today. As we wrap up, tell me: what’s standing out for you from our brainstorming session today?”

Perfect the art of interruption

Interjecting can be hard, but it’s not impossible. Start politely with phrases like, “Can I jump in to share my thoughts here?” or “Before we move on, let me add…” You can add in hand gestures as well, gently raising your hand or index finger. If you’re meeting virtually, type in the chat that you have something to share so the meeting leader can call on you. Unmuting yourself is also another signal that you’d like to speak. There may be times when you have to more forcefully interject. Here you can use an assertiveness technique known as the broken record. This involves stating one phrase repeatedly in an even-handed tone. For example, you can say the person’s name (“John, John, John — excuse me, but I have to get back to work”) or an expression (“I have to stop you there. I have to stop you there.”).

Come from your perspective

When setting boundaries, it’s important to use “I” language to express your thoughts and feelings and take ownership of your perspective. That means starting speaking with first-person language (I, me, my) versus second-person language (you, yours, yourself). In practice this can sound like:

  • I’m on a deadline and can’t chat right now.
  • In order to be at my best, I really need time to focus. Thanks for respecting that.
  • I feel overstretched at the moment and don’t have the brain space to contribute to this conversation in the way I’d like to. Can we connect next week?
  • I know in the past I’ve been able to offer support around this issue, but I have new priorities that require my attention.
  • I’m nervous to say this, but I’m making an effort to communicate more authentically and I have to share that I feel our conversations are imbalanced. Can we discuss how to fix this?

Direct dialogue to a certain time

The chatty colleagues in your workplace may often come to you with questions, seeking advice and guidance. If this is the case, create systems to streamline requests that come your way so that you’re not being interrupted at all times. Many of my clients find it beneficial to create “office hours” — designated blocks of time when team members can drop in for impromptu discussions, troubleshooting and more. That way, the next time your colleague approaches you, you can say, “That’s a great topic that I’d love to talk about more. Why don’t you bring it to my office hours on Monday at 3 p.m. I have that time earmarked for issues like this.”

Have a big picture conversation

Your colleague’s talkativeness may eventually warrant a broader feedback conversation. This is crucial if the chattiness is having an outsized negative impact on you or your team, resulting in tardiness, lost productivity, or a poor customer experience for example. If this is the case, start by taking the opportunity to reset expectations for your working relationship. Review your hours and availability, how you structure meeting agendas, and the conditions you both need to do your best work.

While setting boundaries with others — including your co-workers — can be difficult, it’s an exercise in building your confidence. Every time you assert a limit you prove to yourself that your desires, preferences, and energy are important and should be valued as much as anyone else’s.

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