Patrick was noticeably upset as he sat down for our coaching session. “I’m at my wit’s end,” he said, shaking his head. He’d had another planning session earlier with a marketer on his team. Although Patrick enjoyed working with this person most of the time, he was unhappy about the fact that their one-on-one meetings typically lasted 20 or 30 minutes longer than they were intended to, which made him late for his next appointment. His chatty co-worker tended to digress from the topic at hand, rambling at great length and monopolizing the conversation.
Maybe you can relate to Patrick’s struggle. We’ve all had the experience of working with someone who doesn’t seem to understand that they talk too much. This could be someone who hits you with direct messages throughout the day, drops by your desk uninvited to volunteer information about their weekend plans in great detail, or calls you and asks to talk for 10 minutes, then keeps you on the phone for a solid hour.
It was readily apparent to me, as Patrick’s coach, that he would benefit from establishing strong boundaries with his colleagues. But when I suggested this to Patrick, he was resistant. “It’s draining to interact with her sometimes, and that’s unfortunate. But the last thing I want to do is make him feel bad. We have to maintain a decent working relationship, and I don’t want to jeopardize that.” Patrick’s concerns were unsurprising to me since many of my clients have expressed similar sentiments.
The professionals and leaders I coach are “Sensitive Strivers,” which is my term for highly sensitive people who are also high achievers. Sensitive strivers are empathetic and strongly attuned to emotional dynamics, which is part of why they’re such strong leaders. But those same traits can also degenerate into conflict avoidance and people-pleasing.
If you’re concerned about damaging your relationship with your chatty co-worker, think about the price you’ll pay if nothing changes. It may seem like you’re taking the high road and being patient or generous when you let them waste your time by rambling on, but in reality, you’re building toxic resentment that will harm you personally and professionally. There are many different reasons that people over-talk (anxiety, disorganization, and ego, among others), but regardless of the root cause, you have to honor your own needs and protect your team by setting boundaries with diplomacy and compassion so that you are able to work.
6 Ways to Maintain Boundaries with a Chatty Co-Worker
Anticipate their request.
Reflect for a moment upon the long-winded, chatty co-worker with whom you interact regularly. By being mindful of who these individuals are, you can prepare in advance for your encounters with them. Right at the start of your conversation, express your boundary. Set a clear time limit on the interaction by saying something like, “There’s something else I have to attend to at the top of the hour,” or “I want to warn you in advance that I can only talk for 10 minutes.”
There’s no need to explain why you’re putting a limit on your time with them. Your need to complete your tasks, rest, or take a break is more than enough of a reason. When you set a boundary, it’s important to enforce it and end the meeting when you said you would. If you let them go on beyond the time you mentioned, you’re teaching that person that they don’t have to honor your requests or even take them seriously.
Signal your close.
If you’ve told your coworker that you can only meet for an hour, then be sure to mention that at the 45-minute point and start to summarize. You might say something like, “In the 15 minutes we have left, why don’t we turn our focus to our next steps. I’m hearing that I’ll be responsible for X while you tackle Y.” Another possibility is to use a coaching angle, and ask an open-ended question like, “We’re reaching the end of our meeting. To wrap up our time together, I’d love to hear your main takeaways from what we’ve discussed today.”
Practice strategic interruption.
It’s difficult sometimes to interject, but it can be done. Begin with polite phrasing like, “Is it alright if I share something?” or “I’d love to add on to what you just said, if I may…” You can also use gestures like raising your index finger or your hand. In a virtual meeting, use the chat function to alert the leader to the fact that you have something to share.
Another way to signal the desire to speak is by unmuting yourself. At times, it may be necessary to assert yourself more forcefully. There’s an assertiveness technique called the broken record that you might find helpful. It consists of simply repeating the same phrase in an even-handed way. You can say their name (“Becky, Becky, Becky—I’m sorry, but I need to get back to what I was doing”) or a phrase (“We need to stop for today. We need to stop for today.”)
Approach from your perspective.
When you set a boundary, it’s best to use “I” language in taking ownership of your perspective and expressing yourself. This means speaking in first-person language initially (me, I, my) rather than second person (you, yourself, your.) Here are some examples of what this sounds like:
- I have a deadline and don’t have time to talk now.
- In order to deliver the best possible performance, I need uninterrupted time to focus. Thanks for understanding.
- I’m overextended and am not in the proper head space to bring as much to this conversation as I’d like. Can we circle back around next week?
- In the past, I know I’ve been able to step in and assist you with that, but I no longer have the bandwidth.
- I feel anxious about saying this, but I’ve been feeling like our conversations are out of balance in some ways. Can we talk about how to make them more equal?
Limit conversation to a specific time.
Your chatty co-worker may seek out your advice and guidance more often than you would like. You can streamline these requests by creating systems that protect you from a continual barrage of questions. Some of my clients hold “office hours” by blocking off time on the calendar when colleagues are welcome to drop by for troubleshooting, informal discussions, and more. If you take this approach, you can respond to your colleague’s attempt to converse by saying, “What a great topic. Could you come by during my office hours on Tuesday at 2? I’ve set that time aside for issues just like this.”
Bring up the big picture.
It’s possible that your colleague’s propensity for talking too much could eventually require a broader feedback conversation. This is essential if this person’s chattiness is having a big negative impact on either you or your time, on a level that impacts productivity, punctuality, or even customer experience. If a conversation like this becomes necessary, begin by resetting their expectations for your business relationship. Go over your availability and your hours, the way you structure the agendas for your meetings, and what each of you needs in order to deliver your best possible performance.
Setting boundaries can be uncomfortable, especially when colleagues are involved. But it’s a beneficial exercise that can strengthen your confidence. Each time you assert a boundary, you’re sending a signal to yourself that your energy, preferences, and desires are just as important and worthy as anyone else’s.