Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 most uncomfortable work situations of 2015. See the full list here.
We’ve long lamented open office plans, and dreamed of ways to help eliminate distractions. In the meantime, you can’t change your office layout, which means you have to find a way to deal with hearing every . . . single . . . sound that your coworkers make.
Psychologist Art Markman gives a reader advice on how to deal with an annoying coworker.
Like many people, I work in an open office, and while I like all the people I work with, there is a person who sits behind me who I don’t know (he is part of another team that I don’t work with) who is really annoying.
It seems like he is making one annoying noise after another all day long: He has a loud phone voice for both work-related and nonwork phone calls, he seems to only like to eat super-crunchy foods from noisy plastic bags, and is always doing this “sniff, sniff” thing with his nose that is like the beating of the tell-tale heart in the Edgar Allan Poe story–it’s slowly driving me insane.
I don’t know how to bring this up. Saying, “Excuse me, I’m sure you’re a decent human being, but everything you do makes me want to stab my eardrums with a pen” seems a little harsh.
At My Wits’ End
Dear Wits’ End:
My sympathies. The open office environment is full of distractions. When you have a particular coworker whose habits are getting on your nerves, that just adds to the overall frustration of having to pay attention in a noisy environment.
Before reaching out to your colleague, there are a few things you might want to do. If you aren’t sure already, you should confirm that this colleague is special in his ability to annoy you. Spend a couple of days working in another part of the office. It would be a shame to take action, only to find that there is another annoyance just waiting to happen.
Second, you might want to use your cell phone to record yourself for a few hours. As attuned as we may be to other people’s habits, we are often blind to our own. Knowing the ways that you may be getting on other people’s nerves is useful. It can make you a little more sympathetic to your colleague. Plus, there is nothing worse than complaining to someone, only to have them lob the same complaints back at you.
Before reaching out to your colleague, try a few preventative measures. There are lots of noise machines out there. Some play only white noise, while others provide a variety of background sounds that can mask the unpredictable sounds around you.
After all that, if you do feel like you need to reach out to your colleague, here are a few suggestions.
First, try to find some positive things to talk about as well. I know you are deeply frustrated, but it is helpful if you can place your discussion in the context of something positive. You might want to get to know him a bit before saying something, just to put a more human face on the problem.
Second, your frustration makes all of his habits annoying. If you confront him with everything that is bothering you, he is liable to assume that you are being overly sensitive. Then, he’ll just ignore your request. Instead, pick one thing (like the sniffing) that you think is at the root of what really gets to you. Focus your conversation on that one thing. By staying focused, you may give your colleague something he can fix rather than hitting him on all fronts at once.
Third, make it clear that the problem is yours, not his. That is, the things he does annoy you. So, you are asking for his help to clear up your problem and not focusing on him as the problem. In that way, you might be able to enlist his help while not embarrassing him.
Finally, if all else fails, you should chat with a supervisor to see if you can get your desk moved. If you cannot concentrate in your current spot, perhaps a change of venue will do the trick. If there are several teams located in the same office, then there may be another desk where you would find it easier to work. You are probably not the first person in your office to have difficulty with the open office space. It is in the best interests of your supervisor to find a place where you can work effectively.
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