Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

My Coworker Does This Annoying Little Thing . . .

Dear Joseph,

Our offices look soundproof. But they are not. Even with the doors closed you can hear almost everything above a whisper from the adjacent office. My coworker in the office next door hums and sings very loudly. I put headphones on to try to cover it with my own music, but I can still hear her singing over it. No one else seems to hear it or be bothered by it, but it’s becoming really distracting for me at work. I’m not sure how to approach her without sounding rude and embarrassing her. I could leave my office to work in common areas instead, but I feel I should be able to use my office, too. How can I let her know that her humming/singing is disrupting my work without hurting her feelings or our work relationship?

Distracted by Singing

Dear Distracted,

I’ve got two options for you to consider.

First, see if you can change your reaction to the singing without lowering the volume.

When my son was little, he had a knuckle cracking habit. When I would drive him somewhere, he would sit in the back seat crunching his cartilage over and over and over . . . and over. It drove me nuts. It was loud. It was repetitive. And it seemed out of control. He would do it in other circumstances as well where I was certain it was annoying others. I decided this needed to stop. So, I made a campaign out of it. And in the end, I lost. Don’t get me wrong, the knuckle cracking stopped. But I lost in two other ways. First, I lost because I weakened my relationship with my son in order to get what I wanted. And second, I lost because I reinforced a false belief in my mind that my emotions were his responsibility. Let me elaborate.

First, read the four italicized sentences in the previous paragraph again. Notice the assumption woven throughout each of them. First, I allege that he was driving me nuts. Second, I exaggerate the volume. Third, I place a value judgment on him (“he’s out of control”). And finally, I make it a moral crusade (“he is annoying others”). Others could sit in the car and feel fine with the muffled crunching. But to me it was intolerable. Why? Some people have more audio sensitivity than others. I suspect that was part of it. But an even larger piece was what I was doing to myself. I was amplifying a minor inconvenience and turning it into a major hardship. By using my parental power to extinguish his behavior, I failed to solve the real problem: my exaggerated stories. This set me up to solve the wrong problem over and over in my relationship with him and others of our children. Oh, to have those years back.

So, option one is to examine whether the story you are running in your head is cranking the volume on the humming/singing. One way to test this theory is to see if there are other areas of your life where your reaction to minor behaviors is similarly out of proportion to that of others’. If so, this could be a terrific opportunity to learn to deescalate your story rather than confront your melodious colleague.

Second, it’s also possible to share the concern with your neighbor in an appropriate way. The best way to do it is to make it about you rather than her. Start with, “I’d like to bring something to your attention that you’re likely unaware of. The walls between our offices don’t dampen sound much. You enjoy singing and humming. I seem to get distracted easily by that kind of sound. It’s my problem, not yours. If you were even able to drop it just a couple of decibels it would make it easier for me to concentrate sometimes. I was reluctant to ask this because it is truly my problem that I react to sound as much as I do. So please don’t get self-conscious. You have every right to enjoy your music. Just wanted to let you know in case there’s an easy way to lower it a little.”

Having had the conversation, it’s important that you follow up in subsequent days with kindness to ensure it doesn’t get weird. Many people feel self-conscious after such a conversation and begin to withdraw and resent those who share feedback. You can lessen the probability of it by small gestures of kindness, or even by checking back in to ask, “Did I make it weird?” and “Please don’t stop humming completely on my account.” If others feel defensive, they can be tempted to turn you into a villain for making your request. Behaving in ways that conflict with that nascent story can nip it in the bud.

Best wishes,

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14 thoughts on “My Coworker Does This Annoying Little Thing . . .”

  1. Vicky Smith

    Another option is noise cancelling headphones or machines. Counseling offices are using devices that cancel the noise so others don’t hear private conversations. Personally, I would just start dancing to the music.

  2. Glen Stroik

    I have this problem in my lab. I am the one who gets easily annoyed, and has an issue with this behavior. My coworker whistles often, and sometimes it is super loud. It’s an open lab with no walls, so we all have to hear it. I decided to put this behavior in perspective in order for me to better deal with it. The thing about the whistling is that it happens when the person is in a good mood. Happiness in any environment is always better than friction or somberness. I still don’t like the noise, but when you take something like this and reformulate it your mind as a good noise instead of an annoying one, you will be amazed at how it helps you cope. I want to be a part of a happy environment not an uncomfortable one. I still don’t like the noise, but I have programmed myself not to let it bother me. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but the process makes a big difference!

    1. Portia

      I’ve whistled or hummed to fake being happy or unstressed at work and everyone was quick to, rudely, tell me to stop. I’ve asked loud singers/whistlers to please lower their volume and was sharply told, “No!”. I work in education and people are supposed to be polite, so I don’t know what’s happening in all the districts I’ve worked at. I haven’t worked with people that are as polite as everyone sounds here. Adults cut me off in the hallways. People meander on stairways blocking me from using the railings. They swing doors open with force and it hits my hand. They run to beat me to the restroom or microwave. It’s a jungle. Nobody holds back.

  3. Jenna Joens

    What a generous way to address this program. Owning up to one’s own reactions to things is HUGE. It’s been a real game changer for me in my personal relationships, but also ones at work.

  4. Reader

    Wow! Excellent and really helpful advice!

  5. Reader

    I really appreciate also your reflection on your interaction with your son and the recognition of your use of authority to stifle him – this level of self-awareness is really great.

  6. Joy

    This article was incredibly helpful! Occasionally, I become very sound sensitive. I haven’t brought it to others attention except to make fun of myself and not making anyone else a villain. The conversation suggestion was very disarming. I can see how this would be helpful to a coworker in understanding your issue instead of them as annoying.

    I know the original person has tried music but I have found white noise to be more helpful and soothing to my nerves. There are several on YouTube I utilize regularly as I have similar “paper walls”.

    Again, loved this helpful suggestion!

  7. Jan Songer

    Owning your own reactions is incredibly important. I am wondering about making allowance for those with little situational awareness. I’m thinking there are times when the reaction is appropriate because the behavior of the other person is not appropriate, for example clipping toenails during a board meeting. Does anyone have thoughts on that?

  8. Emm

    This was a good question with a good reply.
    One thing I would like to address: be sure one doesn’t squelch co-worker happiness.
    Having watched little sons, daughters, nieces and nephews, toddlers and small children express their happiness in humming and singing, even when entertaining themselves with toys or books, I have come to appreciate their innocent, joyful expression.
    The humming colleague in the article is happy; sometimes I catch myself being too “adult” and not enjoying or allowing the happiness of another.
    Acknowledging the need at work, at times, for quiet in complex problem-solving or thinking, addressing the colleague in this way is truly OK, and, I agree with Glen’s response. I temper my communication with a smile and generosity to remove his/her defenses.
    One other solution: ask the maintenance department if a cork covering can be installed along the entire wall. This helps with some noise reduction, allows people to tack notes up during group planning meetings and solves conversation noise for the other side, too.

  9. bean

    “Did I make it weird?” et seq all make sense from the perspective of doing everything i can to care for the relationship, but on an objective level, I question whether something is going wrong (let alone, how to fix it) when I’m charged with the responsibility to take on not only my own stories but theirs too…

    from a manager’s perspective, i take this advice as enlightened certainly, but from the one doing the insecurity dance, it leaves me feeling really subordinate…
    can you help me with this toxic narrative?! haha

  10. Mary Frances Mika

    Such wise advise. Mastering my stories is something that I think about daily! It was such a pivotal concept for me when I took the training. I like how you put everything in perspective. Is it worth damaging the relationship just so you can speak those words? Many times, it’s not. Thank you!

  11. Kristy

    I disagree that Distracted should say “It’s my problem, not yours.” The purpose of being at work is to do work, not to sing. If an employee’s singing or humming distracts others, it’s not a “minor behaviour,” and the singer needs to stop doing it. Although mastering one’s stories might reduce the frustration, a person may actually be unable to concentrate with the distraction.

  12. Angie

    Sounds like there needs to be some ground rules in place. Whom ever is the leader/director/boss-should have a list of expectations in respect for their coworkers. We are all different but there are basic things that seem to have fallen to the wayside somehow.

    1. bean

      the older i get the more i hear this “just some basics you don’t violate” argument, the ground truth for which is, as best i can tell, social convention (unless you have some neuroscience research to share), i.e. there are some basics you just DO violate if you don’t like them, and when enough people violate them together, you get a new convention, itself to be violated soon enough.

      that whole process/cycle becomes the interesting part to me; how do we make these “reconventionalizings” less annoying to everyone? communicating values between groups, i think, and i think crucial skills help there.

      otherwise, what do crucial skills have to add to this scenario? or better, how do YOU approach this scenario in a way that’s less annoying to everyone other than crucial skills?

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