Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
Several of my coworkers sit and face each other in the cubicles next door to me. They’re good friends and it seems, especially lately during our slow season, that they spend the majority of the day chatting about anything and everything. Most mornings, the first hours are nothing but chatter. It’s terribly distracting. I’ve tried to plug in my earphones and listen to music to help me focus but it doesn’t drown out the noise. Any tips on asking the “chattaholics” to turn it down and minimize the disruptive discussion without seeming rude or snobby?
This sounds like a classic case of being stuck. I define “stuck” as not getting results you want, getting results that you don’t want, failing relationships, recurring problems, or being frequently bugged. Our Crucial Conversations book and training contain a set of skills that helps you get unstuck. These skills help you solve situations characterized by high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions. Before I offer some advice, I want to take a moment to suggest how these situations generally develop, and hope this note will motivate everyone to speak up early.
Here is the main point. Chattiness, like tardiness, or sloppiness, doesn’t happen suddenly—it sort of sneaks in or evolves. No one or no team starts the day by saying, “Look we have typically been getting eight hours of effective work done every day, but now I suggest that we chat for three hours and work for five. Won’t that be fun?” And I doubt any group started chatting three hours the first day. Social time most likely increased by a few minutes every day. Lower standards creep in little by little, here and there, which can make the problem hard to notice.
With that background, my first bit of advice is to catch problems early. When you catch them early, it’s easier to speak up. Early on, you might have been able to say something like, “Hey team, I have a lot of work to do, and it’s hard to get it done when we talk this much. I can be chatty myself; however, I’m wondering if we could chat during breaks and lunch and focus on work when it’s work time. That would really help us all out. What do you say?” Early on, you are not dealing with a long pattern; there is no new, lower norm. It’s just easier for anyone to speak up early. Even if you have let the problem grow over time by remaining silent until now, the sooner you choose to say something, the easier the crucial conversation will be.
Remember that when any of us see that we are stuck, we have three options.
We can stay silent. Often we don’t want to speak up because we feel it’s not our job, we don’t want to make waves, or don’t want to lose a friend. But I would caution you—silence is the petri dish upon which lower standards grow.
We blow up. We’ve had it “up to here.” So we explode with something like, “Give me a break! Shut up, you gossip mongers, will you??? I can’t get my work done.” Again, be careful. Leading with emotions and labels is the dynamite that weakens relationships.
We speak up with candor and courtesy. When we do this, we show that we value both the standard and the relationship and that we are speaking up to maintain both.
If you try the third option, you should be prepared with what you’ll say or do next. Often, people are silent, not because they don’t think they can bring up a topic, but because they are fearful they won’t be able to deal with the response. The key to preparing is to assess the situation and relationship and think about what might happen if you speak up and then get ready with some responses.
As an example: You begin the conversation as stated above and someone responds with one of the following statements.
• “Who died and left you in charge?” This is an opportunity to share your intention with what you are and are not trying to do—otherwise known as contrasting. You might say, “I’m not trying to be bossy here. I value you as friends and we all have a lot of work to do. I’m just trying to solve a problem I’m facing and asking my coworkers for help.”
• “Since when did you become Captain Perfect? You’re just as bad as I am.” Again, share your intention. “I realize that I’m part of the problem. That’s why I used the word we. I don’t want to come across as a perfectionist; I’m just trying to find a solution to a situation that is affecting all of us.”
• The other person simply nods and rolls his or her eyes. You can tell that right at this moment he or she is thinking statements like the ones above or worse. You might say, “I realize this is a tough subject. It was very hard for me to bring this up because I’m part of the problem. I still want to talk and visit with you. I also want to get a lot of work done. It looks like I’ve bothered a few of you by bringing this topic up. I’m asking if we can find a solution that will help us get the work done and still be friendly.”
Of course there are no “ideal” scripts to use in situations like this one. It’s hard for me to offer options when I know so little about the details or circumstances. But I assure you that you will find your own, more effective scripts if you prepare and have the purpose of finding a solution while also maintaining or strengthening the relationship.
Remember to speak up early in a candid and courteous way and to prepare for responses that will help clarify your intentions.
I wish you the best,
4 thoughts on “How to Work With a Chatty Cathy”
Al, I really appreciate your thoughtful respones. Each approach gets back to buiding the relationship and honoring our own needs.
This suggestion works of the individual is part of the problem. But what if he/she is not engaged in the chatting, but still wants an environment where he/she can work without distractions? Would it be appropriate to suggest that they find another area to chat when their discussions become long and drawn out?
I once had a similar situation with a colleague who would chat all day about her own issues, but also not give equal time if anyone else had something to say (so there were two issues here really). When I decided to tackle it with a ‘crucial conversation’ it didn’t go at all like any of the scenarios outlined. What do you do when the person simply bursts into tears? You can never really predict what’s going on inside a person’s head so it’s difficult to plan ahead and prepare for what you think their reaction will be. I was left feeling like a heel and the situation wasn’t resolved.
What I would do is discuss in in private with the manager. Indicating that you do not want to make waves but all the chatter does not allow one to focus. Ask the manager to bring this up casually during the next team meeting. Something like, “I know we are using the morning to catch up with our previous night’s activities and reconnect. However, I’d like to see that toned down a little bit so as to not distract the work environment.” Then move on to the next topic without letting anyone ask questions or comment. I.e., “Next, I’d like everyone to start getting ready for our team picnic,etc.” Choosing an upbeat subject to change the mood. Just a thought.