Some people just can’t take a hint.
Your eyes have glossed over, your responses are monosyllabic . . . yet they just keep talking. It’s awkward enough when it’s a stranger at a social function, but when it’s your superior at work, how do you get free without making a bad impression?
Psychologist Art Markman helps a reader figure out how to handle this sticky situation.
I hope you can help. There is a guy in my office, he’s not my direct boss but he is quite senior to me. Whenever I end up running into him in the hallway or kitchen a simple “how are you” turns into him delivering a 20-minute monologue. It’s always really dull and sometimes hard to follow (he often goes off on tangents) and I can’t get a word in edgewise. I don’t know how to gracefully get him to stop talking and I don’t want him to have a bad impression of me since he’s pretty high up on the totem pole. It’s gotten so bad that I ducked behind a pillar when I saw him coming the other day. Help!
My sympathies. We all have colleagues with whom it is impossible to have a short conversation. Some of them at least are entertaining or funny, so that the experience is enjoyable, even if it takes time away from other things you have to do.
People like the one you describe in your letter, though, are not paying attention to any social norms. They don’t necessarily realize how their stories are being received by their audience. They are unable to read the social cues in other people signaling that they need to move on. They are generally low in the skills we call emotional intelligence.
Chances are, the reason this colleague drones on is that he isn’t really paying attention to you. That is, he is so absorbed in his own story that he isn’t thinking much about you at all.
That means that the cost of excusing yourself as another monologue is ramping up is probably low. When you notice the telltale signs of another 20-minute conversation starting, you really can take a look at your watch and then excuse yourself by saying that there is a task you need to complete. If you are standing in the kitchen waiting for something to heat up, you can give a sense of your time frame at the start of the conversation. You have to head out as soon as your lunch is ready or your coffee is poured.
If you excuse yourself from this conversation, your colleague will probably find someone else to talk to. Most of us feel uncomfortable standing up for our time for fear that we will offend the other person. However, you are at work, and your first task is to get your work done. As uncomfortable as it might be to say something, you are not doing yourself or the company any favors by grinning your way through yet another story.
If you feel like this person is someone that you should get to know, then schedule a time to talk with him at your convenience. You may still end up with a meeting that feels interminable, but at least you are in control of the schedule in that case. However, schedule a meeting like this only if you feel that developing a relationship with this colleague is important. Don’t do it out of a sense of guilt for protecting your own work time.
If you have a trusted mentor at work, ask them for their advice. It is possible that this colleague is well-known for his monologues and that people have great strategies for helping them out when they encounter him. Your mentor can also help you to decide whether this colleague is an important person to know for your future.
Finally, there is an object lesson in colleagues like this. Some people are just low in emotional intelligence. They have never been good at judging the impact they have on others. But other people change as they start to rise in the company hierarchy. The greater their rank, the more they feel they should talk instead of listening. That is a dangerous pattern to get into. No matter who you are, you are always a better leader when you listen at least as much as you talk.
So, when you see that colleague in the hall, remember that if you lose the willingness to listen to others, someday you could be the person that people duck out of the way to avoid.
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