How to cope with that talkative colleague, without involving HR

We have all had that talkative colleague in the office, the one you sometimes intentionally sidestep as you know the question “how was your weekend” can end up being a much longer discussion than you have anticipated.

And to top it all, you are in an open-plan office. You have considered talking to your colleague, but have decided against it because you do not want to hurt their feelings or harm the working relationship as you need to work closely on a strategic project for the next few months.

“Just talk to them” is the advice that you receive from your friends and other colleagues.

Most of us were also raised to “if you have nothing nice to say, do not say it at all”. This has influenced our belief that we can either be respectful, steer away from having the conversation, or you can be candid and hurt the colleague’s feelings, Anja van Beek, agile talent strategist, leadership and HR expert and executive coach says.

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Be candid and respectful with a talkative colleague

“The secret sauce is to be both candid and respectful by following a few simple steps. Kim Scott, the author of Radical Candor, highlights the importance of two dimensions in any challenging conversation: the one dimension is to care deeply and the other dimension is to challenge directly.”

 These are the three steps to consider when you need to approach a challenging conversation:

Step 1: When discussing a tough topic, what is your default inclination? Do you lean towards the “care deeply” dimension or more to the “challenge directly” dimension? What do you need to adjust about your approach when talking about this issue?Step 2: What is your motivation for having the discussion? For example, it may be to highlight the blind spot of the impact your colleagues’ behaviour has on the team’s productivity.Step 3: HIP, as an acronym, is a good reminder of a few aspects to follow when talking to your colleague, with H standing for the feedback to be helpful and you being humble when sharing your views, the I for in person and immediate as we often wait too long to address the small issue impacting results or working relationships. The P stands for doing it in person and a reminder that it is not about the person, but their behaviour.

Van Beek says their behaviour is the best point to start the discussion and advises that you should share what you have seen or heard about their behaviour.

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Create a safe place to talk about it

“During the conversation, it is critical to creating a safe space for your colleague to hear your views and to share their views. The foundation of any relationship is respect.

“Therefore, when starting this conversation, your colleague needs to know you respect them and this is where the ‘care deeply dimension’ comes into play. You might even share your motivation for having the conversation upfront as this kind of clarity builds trust.”

She says it is also important to be specific, such as saying, “Over the last two days you came and sat at my desk chatting about non-work-related stuff. I also noticed that during our team meeting, you join 10 minutes late and, you said: ‘I got carried away talking to some colleagues at the coffee station’”.  

You can then continue to share why this is a concern and how it may impact productivity and the results, Van Beek says.

“Always welcome and invite them to share their views, especially if they have a different perspective than you. When you have both viewpoints on the table, you can then co-create alternatives to address this situation.”

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When the talk with the talkative colleague does not go well

OK, you have started the conversation, but it is not going well, now what?

“Often, we see that people misunderstand your point during a challenging conversation. The best advice is found in the book Crucial Conversations, where they recommend a skill called ‘contrasting’.”

Van Beek says this is where you get the misunderstanding out of the way and confirm your true intent.

For example, if they think you are saying they are disruptive, you could respond with, “It is not my intent to say you are disruptive. That is not what I am trying to communicate. I do want to discuss the possible blind spot of how your continuous chatter impacts me and my concentration levels”.

Have the courage to speak up, she says. “Out of experience, I have witnessed that if you do not speak up, you will potentially start to act in less professional ways by acting it out, or worst, blow up in a moment. Therefore, when a colleague’s behaviour impacts your results, have the courage to speak up.”

She says here you have to consider the “care deeply” and “challenge directly” dimensions and depending on the other person’s reaction, you increase the relevant dimension.

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