Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Confronting a Monopolizing Coworker

Al Switzler is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Al Switzler is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.

InfluencerQ Dear Crucial Skills,

I work with an individual who does not appear to realize she monopolizes every conversation and meeting she is in by giving excessively long and repetitive explanations and background information when discussing an issue. Several of us have discussed this and simply do not know how to approach her without hurting feelings and potentially destroying good working relationships. We think this is a crucial conversation we need to have with an expert on crucial conversations.

Simply Do Not Know How

A  Dear Simply,

I noted your request to have an expert respond to your question. Since Kerry, Ron, and Joseph are unavailable, I hope you will settle for me.

Your question actually has a fairly straightforward answer. But first, let me start by backtracking a bit.

In chapter one of Crucial Confrontations, we teach a concept called “CPR.” CPR stands for content, pattern, and relationship, and helps you define the type of problem you are facing. The first time a problem comes up, talk about the content, or what just happened. The next time the problem occurs, talk pattern—what has happened over time. If the problem continues, talk about the relationship—what effect the problem has on your relationship.

We ask people to focus on what kind of crucial conversation or crucial confrontation they need to have based on the finding that people often talk about the wrong issue. You can talk about the wrong thing until you’re blue in the face and get no resolution. Unfortunately, people often choose easy conversations over hard ones, simple issues over complex problems, or one instance over a pattern of bad habits. As people take the easy way out, they don’t solve the problem because their discussion never addresses the real issue.

So with that introduction, let me suggest that you have a content discussion. Note that your colleague seems to be unaware of the problem and that neither you nor anyone else has previously brought it up. A content discussion is one of the most straightforward conversations you can have. The process we teach in Crucial Confrontations offers step-by-step suggestions.

1. Choose what and if. You have several indicators that you need to hold this discussion. The main indicator is that you have been concerned about the situation for a while but your conversations have been about her instead of with her. As I suggested, have a conversation with her about content and maybe include a small discussion about the pattern.
2. Make it safe. You need to get your head right before you open your mouth. You need to have a private conversation with your colleague. You need to show in your face and in your tone of voice that you are bringing this up to help—that you have not pre-judged her or oversimplified the concern.
3. Describe the gap. Begin by explaining what you observe versus what you expect. For example, “I noticed you came in today at 8:20 a.m.; working hours start at 8:00 a.m. What happened?”

Granted, it is more difficult to discuss more complex behaviors like the ones you’ve described. Your conversation might begin this way: “Could I talk to you a moment? I noticed in our last meeting that only ten minutes were allotted to several of the agenda items. I also noted that we took about twenty minutes on two of the issues. This made the meeting run over by half an hour. From my perspective, you either gave background information we already knew or went into more detail than we needed—pushing us way over time. I’ve seen this pattern in every meeting this month. My goal is to make sure we all spend our time well. I’d like to talk about this with you.”

Now there are many ways to start this conversation; while my suggestion may not be perfect for you, I’m confident that if you follow these steps and begin with a script, good things can happen.

Your colleague might thank you for your honesty and ask for your advice. Or, she might get upset and be forthright about her feelings. If she gets upset, reaffirm your purpose and the fact that you value your relationship and want to continue to work well with her. She might get upset and go to silence. If she goes to silence, restore safety by reassuring her of your intent to strengthen your relationship.

In conclusion, when faced with this kind of crucial confrontation, focus on the issue using CPR, make it safe for your colleague to speak up, and step up to the conversation honestly and respectfully.

Best wishes,

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10 thoughts on “Confronting a Monopolizing Coworker”

  1. Steve W

    I would find this conversation particularly difficult because I am not sure it is my place to bring this person into line. Shouldn’t the conversation be with the meeting organizer? What do you think?

  2. Athena

    I think more use of the word “we” would be a more true than so many “yous”. I think the point is that the everyone would benefit if the time was kept to the time alloted on the agenda. The colleague who rambles can help by keeping response to the point and shorter. I don’t think crucial conversations have to be as confrontational as the wording in the suggestion would indicate. Just my $.02!

  3. Athena

    Here’s a specific example of what would work in my company’s culture:

    “I need your help with something. In our last meeting we had ten minutes to cover several of the agenda items. We took about twenty minutes on two of the issues which made the meeting run over by half an hour.We (or “I”, if I am the facilitator or their superior)need each team member’s help to make sure we spend our time well and help everyone stay on schedule for their day. What do you think about limiting the time for responses to each item and keeping the background information to a minimum?”

    This puts the emphasis on what a team needs and how each team member can help.

  4. Rebecca

    Dear Simply Do Not Know How,

    First, let me state that I am a reformed “detailed, background giver.” Before you get started, you need to acknowledge the value that this team member brings to the team. Often the devil is in the details and background information can provide insight into solving complex problems.

    This being said, let me put in my two-cents worth of advice. My reformation started when my manager confronted me in weekly staff meetings. She did it in a most polite way. “Rebecca, I need to know XXX about XXX, can you give me the Cliff Notes version?” Now, it helped that we already had a solid relationship and I do not tend to take things personally. I understood exactly what she was saying. Is there someone who facilitates your meetings? The facilitator should take responsibility to manage the meetings to keep your coworker from monopolizing the conversation. In my case, it was my boss.

    Here are some other phrases that may be helpful in keeping your colleague on track:

    “I hate to interrupt, but we really need to close this meeting out. Can we pick up on this conversation next time?”

    At the beginning of the meeting, open with: “Let’s hold this meeting to one hour. Everyone needs to limit your comments so we can get through the whole agenda.”

    There is hope. I am now reformed (and thankful my boss confronted me on this issue). Before I comment, I always ask “How much detail do you need on this issue?” Occassionally, I get overzealous in providing information, so I sometimes have to apologize after the fact (“Sorry everyone, I’m sure that was way more information than you needed”).

    Just remember that everyone will be better off if you do confront your colleague. So, just do it!

  5. Mary Linda

    Please consider that monopolizing the conversation and pressure of speech (interrupting) are characteristics of Manic Depression. This person may be aware (or not) of their behavior and negative consequences on relationships, but not be aware of how to fix them. Medical intervention may be required. Their reaction to a Crucial Confrontation most likely will be emotional, since Manic Depression is an emotional illness.

    Mild Manic Depressives (especially those with rare depression) under a psychiatrists care and stable medication can be a real asset to a company. The company gets a lot of work out of them. I am one of these people.

    My supervisor and team leads discussed my problems directly with me but I did not have a clue what they were talking about. I was hurt and responded with lots of tears. Without my supervisor having the courage to get advice from the company medical department and medical giving me a choice of keeping my job or getting help, I honestly did not know I had an illness. I knew something was wrong: people avoided me, cut me off in conversations, and excluded me. My work ethic and quality were excellent, but my relationships were terrible.

    I probably have been Manic Depressive since I was born, but now I know what is wrong. I fight to stay on my medications, but I still have to be very careful in meetings not to interrupt and at all times say only what is needed to communicate ideas. And the best blessing: my relationships are better.

  6. Rod Morgan

    Now if someone would explain this technique to David Gregory of NBC News, “Meet the Press” would be able to cover five or six topics instead of two.

  7. Malia

    Simply Do Not Know How mentioned that she and other co-workers had discussed this problem, and apparently there was consensus that the behavior had a negative impact on the team. When approaching the employee, there could be value in letting her know that this isn’t just my concern- others have indicated they have a problem with the behavior as well. If you don’t share that information, the employee could dismiss the conversation as just one person’s perspective. On the other hand, sharing it could have a negative rebound if the employee feels like everyone is talking about her behind her back. What are your thoughts about one person sharing a broader concern and, if approprate, how could/should that be handled?

  8. Athena

    I enjoyed the perspectives from all of the various comments. I think my bottom line is that even crucial conversations should preserve the dignity of each person involved. I think accusatory words are not as effective as getting people involved in shared goals. Conversations can be real and crucial and still be kind.

  9. Jean

    I found this topic to be very interesting since I had this problem with a “former” close friend. She talked excessively with too much detail, so much detail, that the main topic or goal of the conversation often was lost. She also hated to be interrupted. I would ask her a question, but ended up “zoning out” because of the excessive detail. I finally realized that it was possible that my friend had Asperger’s Syndrome, a spectrum disorder related to autism. The person with Asperger’s is often very bright and competent in their work, but their lack of social skills and conversational skills can interfere in their personal relationships. Asperger’s can help the person with focus, memory for details/facts and they often have skills in IT and computer work, but have difficulties with personal relationships. Just my two cents!!

  10. Lisa

    Hi, Thank you Rebecca for sharing that you are a reformed “detailed/background giver”…me too! I work in the technical department and most of us on the team are analytical and prefer the full story complete with the boring details. That tendency is part of what makes us good at what we do…but also makes us a bit boring and long winded! It comes as a bit of a shock when you realize that not everyone appreciates the detailed approach and that you are “that guy” holding up the meeting.

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