Every workplace seems to have one, that busybody who views every conversation as their domain. Some butt right in and try to take over like Topper in Dilbert – no matter the topic, they always think they have the best stories to share or advice to give. Others are more socially awkward and just hang around the fringes, wanting desperately to be included but not knowing how to join in. The path forward depends greatly on the type of conversation and the situation so we cover what to do in 7 common scenarios.
Work Conversation Interrupted for a Social Topic
This situation is the most common but also the easiest to handle by simply being direct (but still polite and professional).
- That’s great Jerry, hang on for just a minute while I finish up with Bob about [work topic].
- Hold that thought Jerry, Bob and I need get through this [work issue] right now.
- Lets talk about that during break Jerry, I need to talk shop with Bob to meet this deadline.
Phrases like these are our go-to solution for most circumstances. Delivered with a calm and respectful tone Jerry knows he was heard but also gets the clear message that social chit chat needs to wait until after the work conversation.
For most people this will be enough. But there are ‘frequent flyers’ that routinely interrupt work conversation with friendly banter. For these members a more proactive approach is better. As soon you see them make the first motion like they are going to join your conversation, simply use the first example below. When you get ahead of their interruption they are completely shut down, so do this at the first sign that Jerry is opening his mouth or making eye contact. If you
- Hey Jerry, did you need me for something urgent? No? OK, I’ll be wrapping up with Bob in 15-20 minutes and I’ll stop by your desk.
- Hey Jerry that sounds cool but right now I’m talking shop with Bob and you are stepping on my toes, we will talk about that some other time.
Coworker Eavesdrops then Joins a Work Conversation
Presumably Karen would know what is being talked about since they were eavesdropping but frequently they only catch a phrase or two before they are compelled to join, and takeover, the conversation. These interjectors butt in with their unsolicited opinions and frequently go off on a tangent.
Input from Unqualified Sources (i.e. Armchair Quarterbacks): Just like the guy who played high school football commenting about the game, these employee subscribe to the motto ‘I watch TV commercials so I’m an expert on advertising, I’ll tell you how to run that marketing campaign‘ and feel like they have the solutions to all your problems. In modern open workspaces even quiet conversations easily carry to to surrounding people and the Karens will never have headphones on because they might miss an opportunity to help. Or worse yet, they simply hear conversation happening and feel the need to join ‘What are you talking about?‘.
Now it is absolutely true that you can get too close to your work and overthink things. Sometimes an outside perspective can help see things differently and cut right to the core of the issue. But more often, the input is a waste of time that doesn’t account for the real situation. When this happens we recommend a three step approach:
- First 1-2 occurrences: Recognize that this type of behavior is encouraged by career-building advisors to show you are interested and engaged. Be friendly and help steer the person to connections and resources that are available and appropriate.
- Hey Karen, I think it is great you want to learn more about my department – I can tag up with you later and we can discuss.
- The next few occurrences: Always be professional but move from polite hints into more direct statements. How you deliver them is even more important that what is said – be calm and avoid any sarcasm or condescending tone.
- We didn’t mean to disturb you Karen, we will let you get back to work.
- Karen, we appreciate your thoughts but this doesn’t involve your team and is a complex matter.
- We each have our own jobs to do Karen, lets stay in our lanes.
After each of these, physically move the conversation away. It can be as small as a half step of separation but the movement combined with the statement sends a powerful message.
If the same person continues to interrupt conversations after more than a handful of polite responses you may say to yourself ‘here we go again‘ and start to get angry. Disengage before this happens and the situation escalates. When two employees are hurling insults at each other it matter little how the whole thing started, the behavior is unacceptable and you lose all credibility with leadership. You don’t necessarily need to take the issue to their supervisor, although it is probably a good idea at this point.
Input from Qualified Sources (i.e. Experienced Staff): Sometimes you get lucky and happen to discuss an issue within earshot of someone who has direct knowledge that can help – they may have additional information or resolved similar challenges. Be sure to keep an open mind and probe for value with followup questions – that armchair quarterback may be an actual quarterback from their previous career.
The Right Way to Act on Overheard Information: Even when you are not trying to listen, you will overhear other conversations in the workplace. Don’t be weird about it, if you think you can be of assistance then lead with that statement so your potential value is understood clearly
- Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear you are having problems with Customer A – I used to work for them until a year ago and I may have some insight that can help.
If you are using your team-building skills to expand your network, then it is better to catch them after their conversation has ended, remember to introduce yourself and learn their name.
- Excuse me, I heard you talking about xyz and I’d really like to learn more, could I pick your brain over a coffee sometime?‘
Coworker Hijacks a Work Conversation With a Work Topic
In the most benign form, this is the coworker that steers a conversation off onto a tangent ‘Speaking of abc, we need to blah blah blah‘ or my favorite ‘That reminds me, the xyz needs yada yada yada‘.
In most cases you can simply redirect the conversation back to the original topic:
- Hold that thought Steve, lets finish on this before we go into that.
- One moment Steve, we are almost done with this topic.
- We are going to need [these other people] for that conversation Steve, lets wrap up on this first.
However, every workplace has the person that believes that their work item trumps all other activities and needs to be at the top of everyone’s priority list. Instead of joining a conversation they attempt to hijack the conversation. If they don’t respond to the subtle and polite versions above you need to move on to more pointed statements:
- Hang on Steve, I scheduled time with Shirley to talk about [my topic], don’t hijack my meeting.
- Steve, we were in the middle of discussing xyz when you interrupted, wait your turn.
As satisfying as it can be to say things like ‘Shhh, the adults are talking‘ these type of condescending statements gives them the opportunity to complain to leadership about your unprofessional actions.
With work topics there is always the chance that they are bringing a real emergency situation to your attention. Have enough patience to get the information to at least make that determination before shutting them down. If their matter is both urgent and important than graciously give them your audience.
How to Handle the Lurker that Distracts Conversations
You know the person, the one that hangs out near the conversation or walks up and hovers. They clearly want to join the group but they don’t know how to interrupt or enter the conversation. You can keep talking and ignore them but their presence is both awkward and a distraction.
In our experience it is best to address them directly and find out what they need, if for know other reason than to help them with their social anxiety. They may be intimidated by the members in the conversation or unsure of the importance of their item.
- Hello Todd, did you need me Sarah or I for something urgent? OK, I’ll be done here in about 5 minutes and then we’ll be with you.
- Hey Todd, you like like you want to say something, I’m interested to hear it.
How Not to be a Lurker: First and foremost, mind your own business. You may thing that you are unobtrusively listening but the participants almost certainly notice you, even if they don’t say anything. If you want to join and can contribute to the conversation, just politely join. If you have an urgent issue, just say so.
- Do you mind if I join? I want to stay in the loop for this issue.
- Excuse me, I think this is important.
The best thing you can do to ease the transition is to say their name when you need to interrupt, even more than the sound of their own voice everyone loves to hear their name spoken.
There are situations where you know you need to wait, for example the person you need is already talking to their boss. A good technique is to write a quick note and hand it off as you walk by:
- I need 5 minutes of your time when you are done, I’ll get a drink and wait in the break room.
Sometimes you simply need to form a line and wait patiently. This is common when you need to speak with someone in Payroll or Benefits for example. Don’t eavesdrop because the conversation is certainly confidential but usually there is a natural location because lines happen.
Coworker Hijacks a Social Conversation at Work
You are talking with a friend and the office busy body saunters up and tries to take over the conversation. In general you need to include your coworkers in social situations, don’t engage in workplace bullying or make someone feel excluded. Usually people gravitate toward their own social group and will pick up on the cues on their own.
If you do need to have a confidential conversation at work with a friend you need to make an effort to create some privacy – go into an empty conference room, go to an isolated area with low foot traffic, or separate from others in the corner of a break room. If someone still tries to steamroll into your conversation they are already being rude, so be assertive and politely ask them to buzz off.
- Umm Cheryl, excuse us please, we were in the middle of a personal conversation. Do you mind giving us some privacy. Be certain your tone makes it clear this is a request and not a question.
Only two things certain in life: death and taxes.Benjamin Franklin
The list isn’t truly complete until you add ‘difficult personalities at work’. They will always be there so make sure you control your reactions when they are in full effect. Most are harmless and are not self aware enough to realize their impact. Armed with these skills you can anticipate likely situations and head them off, or deal with them confidently.