how can I make my boss stop talking to me?

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A reader writes:

My boss and I work together in a small office. We get on well and have a great relationship, and she is easily a contender for the best boss I have ever had. The problem is that she is VERY chatty, usually about mundane personal things but also often about unimportant work-related matters, and I don’t know how to get her to stop talking. I have tried all manner of strategies, including headphones (which we are not supposed to use but I can resort to maybe once a week), saying things like “I need to do some work now”, to explicitly saying “I am wasting time with all these interruptions” and then naming her as one of the people interrupting me when she asks who is causing the breaks in my concentration (she did not get this, and pressed for names of people who were interrupting my flow). I have tried standing up and leaving the office to make teas and coffees, but she will continue the conversation upon my return. I tried going to lunch with her so she could “get it out of her system” but this only encouraged more talk about our lunch plans, and talking on the way back to our desks which did not end when we sat down. Moving desks is not an option. I feel like I am pre-emptively shooting down all solutions here, but I want you to know I have considered all the options and now need a fresh perspective.

I think the problem is that, from her point of view, there is always time to chat as she catches up on a lot of work at home. I have specifically made it so that I am unable to work from home as I like to keep these my work and personal lives separate or I will end up working all the time. I find I now come into the office earlier and earlier to avoid her, so that I can have an hours’ peace and get some work done.

I would like to tell her more directly that I cannot sit and chat all day but having been as direct as I can without being rude, it has not worked. Subtlety does not work as she is a self-confessed borderline Asperger’s case and has trouble reading signals. For instance I will start answering in “hmm’s” and “uh-huh’s”, look down, start typing, but she will continue to talk. As she is my boss there is an even greater need not to cause offence and eventually I cave and start responding normally.

I have thought about going to her manager, but as there are only the two of us in our little office, it will be patently obvious that the complaint came from me. It also seems like an extreme reaction to take this over her head.

I am falling behind with my work, and not only that I am now starting to resent her presence in our office. I cheer inwardly when I learn she will not be in that day, and feel irritable and deflated the moment I hear her arriving in the morning. I feel frustrated that she should know better as she is the boss, and she should know all this pointless chatting wastes my time. This is not what I want at all – I do respect and like her as a manager and if I could just sort out this one tiny thing, life would be perfect!

Well, you may like and respect her as a manager, but I don’t. She’s lacking an essential characteristic of an effective manager — the understanding that her employees are there to get things done, not to entertain her.

In any case, how about saying this: “Jane, I love working with you. You’re one of my favorite managers I’ve ever had, and I really just like you on a personal level too. But there is one way where we’re not working well together, and it’s this: You’re able to still get your work done even when talking to me a lot during the day. But I can’t. I’m finding the amount that we talk during the day to be distracting and it’s preventing me from being as productive as I want. The last thing I want is to offend you, but I need to dramatically cut down on how much chit chat we have during the day. Can you help me stick to this resolution?”

You might also say, “I know we’re both in the habit of chatting a lot, so going forward, I’m going to be really vigilant about not doing that. I’m mentioning it now, because when I tell you that I can’t talk, I don’t want you think I’m being rude.”

The idea here is that this is a big-picture conversation, not something in the moment about that particular instance. (In fact, this is the same advice I give to managers who are frustrated that an employee is continuing to make the same type of error:  Stop addressing it instance-by-instance and step back and have a big-picture conversation about the pattern.)

Then, after that big-picture conversation, when she starts chatting with you, be direct and be firm. Since she doesn’t pick up on subtler cues, you’re going to need to be direct each time:  “Working over here!” or “I’m immersed in X, let’s talk later” or “I’m tuning you out!” (said with a smile) or whatever.

And if that still doesn’t work, then you need to have another conversation with her, this time about the fact that your first conversation about it hasn’t changed anything. And, just like a manager would do when talking to an employee about a performance problem when the first conversation didn’t work, you might escalate it in seriousness of tone and/or substance.

Two caveats to all this:

1. It’s possible that this will chill your relationship. It shouldn’t, but if she’s immature, she may take this personally.

2. Even with doing all of the above, she still might not change. Just like with a manager who’s a wimp or a jerk, some traits are not changeable. So you can and should try these strategies, but if they don’t ultimately work, you may need to decide how far you’re willing to take it.

Or you could just wear headphones, every day, all day. And when you’re approached about violating the company’s headphones policy, you’d explain why.

What other ideas do people have?

Want to read an update to this post? The reader’s update several months later is here.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. Morgane

    I had a similar situation once with a chatty coworker. It was embarrassingly awful.

    You could also try an “I am busy sign” and discuss it with her so that when you have the sign up on your door people (your boss) can’t come in to chat. When discussing the sign with her you could suggest that she email you and work related information.

  2. Anonymous

    We are in the same situation! Our office has resorted to having the bosses assistant come up to her and tell her to stop talking and to get back to work! No joke.

    We tried all of the above also.. even having a long conversation about what WE as a TEAM need to do to get our productivity up! On average we were wasting 3 hours a day with her standing by our cube and talking to us about her life and work history…

    You should start Allison’s advice :) Hope it works for you!

  3. Eva

    I know I said I’m not necessarily a fan of using MBTI in the workplace, but this is one situation where I think it might help to think about how some people are extroverts who need to talk in order to think and some people are introverts who need peace and quiet in order to concentrate. Otherwise both parties project their own psyches onto the other, as indeed the OP may be doing here:

    She mentions that the boss is able to work from home, indicating that the OP thinks the boss is wasting just as much time as she herself is, but the boss might actually be so extroverted that she needs to be able to talk in order to clear her own thoughts and be effective. If that is the case, there may be a tradeoff between giving the employee peace and quiet and giving the boss someone to talk to – and the latter need would have to be addressed as well.

    I know I’ve had a boss like this, and I ended up thinking of it as part of my job description to lend an ear to her when no one else was around. (The woman was a partner and I was just a student assistant, so normally she talked to those who were higher up in the hierarchy.) She was/is a brilliant consultant who even did a fair bit of writing – she just couldn’t write three sentences of a report without saying something out loud.

    1. mouse

      I was going to say something similar… that I think this is a case of personalities pretty much hard wired to work a little differently. I’d bet money that the boss lady probably has few or no problems with working while being chatted at. She may not even realize she’s distracting the OP.

  4. Dawn

    This is why I try to do as much communication by email as possible. It reduces unwelcome chit chat. Not all the time, but most of the time. I don’t mind occasional short chats, but I defintely don’t like when someone hangs around and drones on and on about everything under the sun.

  5. Clobbered

    If she really is an Aspie, you *really* need to discuss signals as part of the conversation. Either an explicit signal like something you put on your desk, or a time boundary signal (having 40 minutes of each hour quiet time, 20 minutes open – ask her what kind of signal you can give and be very explicit about the things you have said, like wanting to finish all your work at the office.

    It is a shame the headphones thing won’t work for you as I can tell you from experience that is a great explicitly prearranged signal in this particular situation.

    Of course if when she says she has Aspergers she means “I can’t be bothered to pay attention to social signals I don’t like”, that is a different issue (and she really shouldnt co-opt the term).

    1. Dave

      I came to post something similar. If she’s on the spectrum, she will likely appreciate direct and frank “when I am wearing headphones, I am only to be bothered in an emergency such as an office fire, earthquake, or tornado”. She will likely appreciate hearing this each time she forgets, and will quite possibly be honestly apologetic.
      Your tone must be respectful of course and calm.
      And like Clobbered says, if she’s just using the term as a cover for her chatty personality, she could probably use a stern talking to anyway :)

      1. Cheryl

        Seconded. Be kind, explicit and direct. Set a clear boundary and stick to it. I like the idea of asking for 40 minutes of quiet time each hour.

  6. CJ

    Oh my goodness, I can’t even believe I’m suggesting this, but maybe you should get a kitchen timer for your desk?

    Do the pre-arrangement/consent conversation, of course. Make sure she agrees with you using it and agrees to the time limit, but maybe she gets 10 minutes to talk, and when the bell goes *DING!* you’re done!

    And for goodness sakes, keep us posted!

  7. Mephistopheles

    I would offer an alternative, but only if you are willing:

    I would say “Hi Jane. I enjoy talking to you, but it distracts me from the work that I have to do, and it is work that I cannot do at home. This puts more pressure and stress on me. I do enjoy talking to you, so how about we grab a cup of coffee at (nearby coffee shop), and we can catch up for a half hour? That way, we can both enjoy our conversation without worrying about things that need to get done.”

  8. fposte

    I feel this one because we’ve had problems of overaccessibility here and because I fear becoming this boss.

    You say you can’t move your desk, but is there a way you can position yourself or items on it so that you’re less accessible? I don’t mean that instead of what Alison suggests, but I know that it’s much easier to fall into a conversation with somebody who’s facing you full on than somebody who’s sideways and/or has a multi-layered inbox or big potted plant obscuring the view. Basically, if you can use physical objects to cubicle-ize the access point a little, that might help reduce her temptation, because you won’t seem so ready-made for easy conversation. If you’re having a candid talk about the pattern, you can even say that you’re going to reconfigure your desk a little so that you’re less distractible.

  9. Cruella

    If your boss is ***truly*** an Aspie, then being honest and direct is the best method. Most Aspie’s don’t pick up on common social cues like others do.

    It probably wouldn’t hurt to read about Aspberger’s to help you determine what other methods are successful for day-to-day contact.

    I have an Aspie in my family. Until we had a full diagnosis, there were problems with his behavior. Discipline, hygiene and various obsessive complusive ticks are just a few that gave his mother trouble. Once armed with more information, she was able to utelize successful methods and he grew into a responsible, productive teenager.

    A “Please Do Not Disturb” sign for your desk would probably help too.

  10. Cruella

    Oh yeah…because most Aspies have OCD tendencies, they tend to over-analyze situations. Be prepared. She may very well take this personally. If she truly has this disorder, it has nothing to do with maturity, it’s a common trait.

  11. Josh S

    At a previous job I had, each employee fashioned a sign that simply read “iTime”. In our office, it was a sign that the person was attempting to focus on the task at hand and did not wish to be disturbed. It was effective, but largely because people understood the purpose and knew it was not going to be up 100% of the time.

    You can try something similar–perhaps putting “iTime from ____ til ____.” Then have a discussion with your boss about the need for focus in order to be productive, and set aside a solid chunk of iTime each day.

    I’m guessing you don’t mind the chit-chat on its own merits, but rather the hindrance it causes you as you try to work. If you can block out, say, 4 hours each day to be undisturbed, would that be sufficient time to get stuff done so that you won’t mind (as much) being interrupted the other 4 hours?

      1. Vicki

        You’d “love” my current cubicle environment then. I’m on a cross-aisle between two major corridors, 25 feet from the floor’s breakroom. Headphones don’t help. People in the breakroom think they’re “not working” so why not TALK. Other people step out of the main corridors into the smaller cross-aisle to converse outside the flow of traffic. The other day I had to politely discourage two women who were talking just outside my cube – and one looked shocked that I had done so.
        Lately I’m working at home 3.5 days a week. I’ve given up that “half day in the office” as a lost cause.

  12. Sharon

    Excellent advice. I also have a chatty co worker who can’t stop talking about his stories when he was working in a foreign country. Sometimes it would be the 2nd or 3rd time. I would gently say, “I think I heard this before..” then he would be surprised almost shocked. I now work from home so its been great :)

    1. Natalie

      Argh, one of my best friends used to do that! Thankfully her former boyfriend talked to her about it (while they were dating) and she’s gotten much better.

  13. Anonymous

    There is so much excellent advice here! I only have a few things to add:
    Continue coming in/leaving early. If possible, schedule the most “intense” tasks early. If (when) the other methods work, there will still be some adjustment time.

    I became really good friends with a co-worker once, so I knew off the bat that if we talked at work, we really talked at work. Because of this we could joke about it. “We know we can’t talk at work” became a code for after-work discussion/hijinks. That is not your situation, but it could be a good way to postpone chit-chat for lunch time, etc. Come to think of it, as a group we do this at my current job! If not for after work, for when downtime comes up.

    Does your office work on a server, with remote desktops? If so, you could occasionally move camp for a day. My office is the Fortress of Solitude, so I occasionally switch desks with a co-worker. They get some peace and I get re-energized, since my mind can’t wander away from spreadsheets to AAM……..

    Best of luck!

  14. CL

    I think the best option is to go for candor. Tell her gently that you really cannot talk if you are to complete what you need to during the work day. If she’s borderline autistic (Asperger’s), then she needs you to tell her directly and consistently when she’s not behaving acceptably. If you have an otherwise great relationship with her, then you should be able to speak directly to her.

  15. Anonymous

    Chatty coworker over here. I can talk and work all day. I can multitask my multitasking. Turns out my coworkers can’t. I need them to tell me to shut up (which is fine we are all friends and open in my dept), otherwise I don’t know that I am distracting them or that they have a bit of down time. Bottom line: everyone is different. Communicate.

  16. ANON

    I used to have chatty coworkers. It was my first job in the corporate world. I was more than confused as to why people felt okay to chat so long. I used to look at my keyboard, start typing, turn my chair, nod.. smile to signal that the discussion needs to end. It never seemed to work. They seemed to come closer and try to get my attention.

    Anyway, here’s an idea that I should have tried out:

    1.Block off time on your calendar ex. 8-10 am work on X. 10-12 work on Y; 1-3 work on Z etc etc.
    2. Set it up so an alert pops up WITH SOUND, then press snooze so it comes up every 15 minutes. Turn volume high enough.
    3. If the person comes by and is talking, wait for the ‘alert’ to sound, jump in your seat and look at the calendar.
    4.Point to the calendar and show her your ‘new idea’ on how to better manage time. Say “Hey come here, I wanted to show you something cool. So….I was thinking of a good way to get my work done more efficiently. You see this here? I’ve allocated time slots for my assignmnts so I can take care of it during that time. The only downside is I have to watch how much I chat with everyone, which by the way, is going to be hard. But, i figured I have to do my best if I need to get my work done. Lately, I’ve been having to take my work home, and I’m trying to minimize that as much as possible now. So I don’t know, I hope this idea works. Do you think this idea will work?”

    1. ANON

      BTW the reason why this may work is because you aren’t showing any judgement towards her and it’s genuine. It shows you are trying to be tough on yourself and are focusing on your own actions, not hers. You are telling her that you will find it hard to stop talking, and will also suffer under the new rule you created for yourself, and will need her help. Asking her for help can be seen as a compliment, because you are essentially trusting her to help you.

      It’s sort of like when a teacher wants stop the trouble maker from creating michief in her elementary class. Instead of reprimanding him/her, you tell them they are now the class police, and is in charge of stopping others from acting up. That will make them stop acting up, and others too.

  17. Emily

    I agree with all the posts about being direct if she does in fact have Asperger’s. In most business things, it’s best to be diplomatic but direct.

    However, I think it might be likely that the person is just chatty. I think the OP sounds guilty of being too polite. I’d suggest she stops feeling bad about just keeping up the stream of uh huh and hmms and not really listening. Don’t cave and start listening! Make polite sounds every once and a while and get on with your work. I have a chatty coworker I do this too sometimes and she eventually peters out. She’s just chatty, it’s something she can’t really help. She doesn’t get offended, because it’s chat. If she was telling me something majorly important, then I would give her my full attention.

  18. OP

    Hi, OP here,

    Thanks everyone for your comments and suggestions! I had a scheduled 1-on-1 meeting with my boss this morning and used it as an opportunity to broach the subject of time management in general – I agree with AAM that I should be looking at the big picture here and not saying things like “you talk too much”. I cited “our” chatting as one of a number of things that are hindering me from doing my work, and we talked about various ways in which I could get back big chunks of time in order to do those tasks that require concentration. When we came to the chatting issue, I said I felt that we spent a lot of time talking and perhaps we could work out a signal or set a 5 minute maximum, or…? To which she replied “Just tell me to shut up!” :) To be honest, when she responded that way I had to laugh at myself for stressing about this. She told me that I need to be more forceful when telling people I have work to do and to stop being so polite, as Emily mentioned further up in the comments.

    Just to clarify the Asperger’s issues – she really does have a problem with gauging people’s reactions and knowing how to respond; she often relies on those close to her to tell her what the subtext was in various situations.

    Apparently there is going to be some sort of announcement about headphone policy in our staff meeting later today, and I am hoping this will be about us being allowed to wear them when we have a big block of work to do.

    What I have taken away from AAM and all the comments above is that if I want my boss to act in a professional way and not talk all the time, then I need to approach it in a professional way by bringing it up officially with her, in the context of me not being able to complete my work on time and how this is a problem.

    I’ll need to see how this pans out over time, but I feel like some positive steps were taken today during our 1-on-1, and it was all managed without causing offence to anyone. I’ll keep you posted on whether an actual difference occurs in the field.

    Thanks everyone, much appreciated!

    1. mouse

      I think I love your boss a little with this update. “Just tell me to shut up” is absolutely priceless.

  19. Anonymous

    That’s great news, OP! Thanks for the update. I agree, you handled it well and whew, so glad she responded the way she did :) Being direct is definitely better than relying on some of the more passive techniques others had mentioned. Good luck!

  20. Anonymous

    I was once in the same situation, expect that my boss not only liked to chat he FAR@#$ a lot. I mean he made noise in our little office and made me so uncomfortable. So chatting I can handle I guess.

  21. anoninOak

    Thanks for the update OP! great to hear the communication went well.

    I had one more suggestion that I just heard in a workshop that builds on some of the suggestions others made. It was to have a ‘Red/Yellow/Green’ sign. It could go on your door, or if sharing an office with others, like the OP, right on your desk. Then, you turn it to Red when you are working on a project and really cannot be disturbed. Yellow when you are working, but if the boss wants to discuss something work related, it is ok to interrupt. And Green would be for social time.

    If it’s somewhere your boss can easily see it from her desk, she can be absolutely sure what your status is, which could be really helpful for an Aspie. And, if she doesn’t remember, instead of saying ‘Shutup’ you can say: ‘Red!’ with a smile, and get back to work.

    The one thing the trainer mentioned when she suggested this technique was: ‘You have to really use it.’ As in, you can’t just leave it on Red all the time, and assume that people will leave you alone. It will actually end up making people completely disregard it and go back to just interrupting you randomly, because they know you never have it off of Red.

    It sounds like a great technique to me. I would use it in my little shared office, but we all just primarily communicate by email and never talk to each other, which is a whole other kind of problem. ;o)

    1. KellyK

      I think this is a really neat idea, though I’d be super-hesitant to ever put my status to green as social time, because that says “Hey, I have no work to do” or “I’m totally goofing off over here.” Unless it’s only intended for breaks?

      If that’s not what it’s meant for, then maybe green needs to mean “distractions welcome,” which could be anything from, “I’m on my lunch break and would love to chat,” to “I’m working on mind-numbing data entry and would be thrilled if someone needed my help with something more interesting.”

  22. joni254

    I agree, you handled it well and whew, so glad she responded the way she did :) Being direct is definitely better than relying on some of the more passive techniques others had mentioned. Good luck!

  23. Hazel Edmunds

    Well done OP. It’s not often I read all the comments to a post on AAM but on this occasion I did and glad to have done it. I just need now to have a strategy for making my husband realise that work is an activity not a place – I’ve resorted to freelancing from home which means, to him, that I’m available to take the dogs for a walk, do the washing up etc etc (all the tasks that he used to do, or sometimes not, when I went to the office).

  24. Anonymous

    I haven’t seen a solution for your problem and I wish I would have. I am in the same situation, small office, new boss, 3 years ago, great person, strong. Over the years that person left, and, I feel I have been left with someone who “I have to train”. I’m not the frinken boss! I am so tired of coming into work and having to take care of my work and hers, and, know everyone elses! Somebody have any input??? I love my job and love my boss!!! HELP

  25. Anonymous

    This was a refreshing thread. I am in a similar situation, but our office area is spacious. My boss tends to drop by unannounced (or unexpectedly) and interrupts to remind me of random things, like discussing a non-urgent email that she JUST sent.

    Then there is IM. She uses IM for attendance and productivity, so if it’s “green” I’m in the office and I’m working. And this means I am open to receiving random IMs in the middle of what I’m doing. I’ve been asked to stop what I’m doing (via IM) to go to her office more than once, which is beginning to get annoying. My IM malfunctioned one day, and that was one of the most productive days I had had in a long time. Because she couldn’t ping me randomly, I received a panicked phone call because she was in a meeting somewhere else in the building and did not have immediate access to me. I told her I was there and my IM was not working. Not sure if she believed me….

    I think these suggestions everyone gave may help me as well. I also noticed that my boss seems to have a hard time reading my facial & body cues, so maybe she’s autistic/has Asperger’s Syndrome as well?

    1. Vicki

      You need to get together with the boss and set up a policy of “yellow” IM status – the “do not disturb” option that many IM systems have or a status that says “busy; urgent messages only”.

      I worked at a company that used IM for everything – people in meetings would set “in a meeting” or “very busy right now”. IM does not need to mean “I’m always available”.

      Unless (you didn’t say) your position is personal assistant to the boss. Then your job is to respond when she calls.

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