how to say “stop talking to me” without being rude

When you’re racing to get something done on a deadline and you get interrupted by a long-winded colleague or telephone caller, do you:
(a) Let them talk, trying to politely hint that you don’t have much time
(b) Say, “I’m actually short on time right now. Could I call you back?”

Far more people do (a) than (b) — because people want to be nice and aren’t sure how to nicely protect their time, or if it’s even possible to do it nicely. They often get so focused on wanting to be nice to the caller or visitor that they forget that — when at work — their obligation is to use their time in the ways that are most effective.

Here are some ways to protect your time without being rude:

1. Remember that your obligation is to be polite, but it’s not to allow someone to cut into time that you could be better spending on something else. You’re not doing anything wrong by asserting that you can’t talk.

2. White lies are made for this situation. Say “I’ve got to run to a meeting that’s about to start” or “I’ve got to grab another call” or “I’m on deadline.” If the interruption is in person, stand up with some papers in your hand. Sometimes this alone signals that you have something else to do. If the signal doesn’t take, say, “I’ve got to run these down the hall.”

3. Set a time limit for the conversation at the very start, such as “I’ve only got a minute to talk” or “I appreciate the phone call but only have a second to talk.”

4. If the person ignores your attempt to end the conversation, repeat yourself again firmly — right away, not after letting them talk on for another five minutes!

5. Don’t be afraid to interrupt a long-winded person who doesn’t pause to take a breath or let you get a word in. Remember, you are responsible for how you spend your time; you can’t hand that control over to someone else.

You can apply these principles in other ways too. If you’re a manager who finds it hard to focus because an employee interrupts you with questions throughout the day, ask the person to save up their questions and ask them in bunches. Or if someone asks you to do something right away that’s a lower priority than what you’re working on, say “I need to finish this first, but I’ll get to it as soon as I can.”

The key point? Be nicely assertive and don’t hand control of your time over to others!

I originally published this at Intuit Quickbase’s blog.

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. GeekChic*

    I say b and have had b said to me. I don’t consider it rude. I also turn my ringer off if I need to concentrate – after all I have voice mail.

    Then again, I am in IT so I perhaps have a different definition of “rude” than other people.

    1. Jamie*

      Yep – I just did a cut and paste of your second sentence into Word > printed > and it’s now taped to the back of my monitor with a little TM GeekChic.

      You are now a published author. That was great.

    2. Charles*

      I’m a trainer – I have that same definition. And it applies in my classes too. “That’s a topic for another class.” or “Let’s discuss that AFTER class.”

    3. Anonymous*

      I also turn my ringer off if I need to concentrate – after all I have voice mail

      That invites the following conversation:
      A: You didn’t answer my important phone call
      B: Sorry. And for some reason your voice mail didn’t show up.
      A: I didn’t leave one.
      B shakes head, concluding that the issue was not all that important.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I HATE when people do that! Someone in another office location does that. He calls my phone and if he gets my voice mail he hangs up. Then when I call to ask why he didn’t communicate XYZ to me because “it’s important”, he says he tried to call, but I wasn’t there.

        Me: “You called? I didn’t have any voice mails from you. I was at my desk all day trying to finish ABC so I didn’t pick up.”
        Him: “No, I didn’t leave a voice mail. I hung up.”
        Me: “Did you call the front desk so Jane can find me or give me a message?”
        Him: “No. I figured you weren’t there.”


        1. mh_76*

          Other Dawn, if he didn’t leave a voicemail, he didn’t call you (even if he dialed & hung up). It’s one thing to not leave a voicemail if the call actually isn’t important or if you don’t expect a call back but I won’t call back unless a voicemail is left.

        2. Editor*

          I call if I want to talk to someone. In the last office where I worked, my supervisor was often not at her desk, so if she didn’t pick up, I called the general number to find out where she was — if she was out and about, I asked to talk to her, if she was in a meeting, I told the staff member I’d talk to her later.

          Then I sent an email.

          I find voicemail annoying. An email is a faster way to leave a message and ask for a callback, and it can give the person you called more information. It’s generally faster for the person you called to skim the brief email than listen to some rambling voicemail. Of course, that assumes the caller works in an office where the culture is to keep email on most of the time or monitor it regularly, which was the case in with my employer.

          1. Anonymous*

            I worked at a company where e-mail was not part of the culture in anyway. They didn’t even have a global contact list, I had to create one. Not to talk down boomers or anything, or the Greatest Generation, but the company big wigs were all well over 50 and only face-to-face would do. They didn’t even allow a written note on anyone’s chair if you couldn’t track a person down. It was a miracle if anyone read your e-mail or listened to your voice mail for that matter and face-to-face was nearly impossible because these people (engineers) were always on the factor floor or just not around. It was tiring and infuriating. Needless to say, I am no longer there.

      2. Ellie H.*

        Voice mail has become so irritating these days. There are so many problems:
        – The ubiquity of Caller ID discourages people from leaving voice mails, as in the above issue.
        – Many people find it irritating to check voice mail on their cell phone so they never check it and let their mailbox fill up instead.
        – Per the above, many people don’t listen to a voicemail and instead just call the person back immediately so leaving the voicemail in the first place is pointless.

        A while ago I got repeated missed calls (like two or three a day for several days) from the same number with no voicemail – I became so creeped out by this that I wouldn’t answer as I thought it was some guy stalking me. Finally this person left a voicemail and it turned out to be a friend of my parents’. Leave a voicemail the first time!

        1. The Other Dawn*

          “Per the above, many people don’t listen to a voicemail and instead just call the person back immediately so leaving the voicemail in the first place is pointless.”

          I don’t know if you were directing this towards what I wrote above, but I just wanted to clarify that we don’t have caller ID at our office. When I’m calling the guy in the other location to follow up it’s because I never heard from him that day (or rather he didn’t leave a voice mail), not because I saw he called and I then called him back right away.

          I get what you’re saying though. It drives me nuts when I leave a voice mail for someone (a DETAILED voice mail) and then she calls me back right after I hang up. She then proceeds to ask what I was calling about and I have to repeat it all over again. Listen to your voice mail! It’s all there!

        2. I hate voicemail*

          Agreed on all points. Voicemail sucks.

          1 – Many people, including myself, hate working through the menues to get at a message. And when we do, it’s only to hear, “Hey, it’s Dave, call me back.” Argh! If you’re not going to actually say something I can’t get from my call log, don’t leave a message. Argh!

          2 – Many people hate it so much, they don’t listen to their messages. So, if you have an important matter, you leave a message, and that clown doesn’t call you back, you’re left wondering if you should call again and risk being a pest, or just wait and risk losing more time waiting for a call that’s never coming. Again, “Argh!” >:-[

          3 – Voice mail is so 90’s

        3. mh_76*

          …and if you call me and don’t leave a voicemail, don’t expect me to return your call. I probably won’t even notice that you called because I don’t waste my time checking “missed calls”. No voicemail = not important.

          1. Liz in a library*

            Oh no…I’m pretty sure I’ve never looked at my missed calls. I also assume that if there is no voicemail, it wasn’t an important call.

  2. Anonymous*

    I have a talker on my team. I have found that the best way to address people who talk a lot or feel the need to talk a lot from a leadership perspective is to allot him about 25 minutes a week out of my schedule during which he can talk to me about whatever he feels he needs to. However I am not afraid to tell him if I am running short on time. This is made easier by the fact that he and I do not work out of the same location.

    1. Valerie Sonstroem*

      I appreciate this approach of giving a time for the talker to talk. I think it is important to acknowledge that sometimes the talker has something that is important for them to talk about, even if it is posed originally as an interruption. As a manager, some of the people I work with have a need to talk more frequently, for longer durations, or about different topics than others. Another person might be less of a talker, but may need my time in a different way, or may need entirely different resources that have nothing to do with my time. Others just need to be known. I did appreciate the new techniques though for stopping the talkers when I just have to say “no”.

  3. Carrots*

    Oh gosh it’s the worst when they see you working and concentrating at your desk and continue to chitchat even after you’ve stated hold on please I need to finish what I’m doing.

    Arghh. Repeat firmly, I’ll keep that in mind instead of blatantly ignoring them when they don’t stop. Much better advice.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      Very annoying. I think the only thing more annoying is when someone hangs outside my office door, waiting for me to finish a phone call so they can run in and chit chat about nothing. Can’t you see I’m on the phone? On a SUPPORT call??

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        When I still worked in an office and people would do this to me, I would ask the caller to hold on a minute and I would pointedly say to the person loitering in my door, “I’m going to be a while” and then turn back to my call. They’d leave.

        1. The Other Dawn*

          Yes, I’ve done that, and still do that; however, there is one person who will say, “OK, but I just have a little question…” And it’s never a little question.

      2. Charles*

        This is also annoying when they hang outside the office and bother the assistant – as if she doesn’t have any of her own work to do and, then, they start pumping her for information!

  4. Kat*

    I really miss the days when I had the freedom to request privacy, quiet time or an end to a conversation. I now work (and yes, I’m thankful to have a job – I keep reminding myself of that point) in a place where a) my desk is in a busy entryway, surrounded by four offices with open door policies and talkative inhabitants, and b) it is considered extremely anti-social to seek privacy or to request quiet in order to think, or to let someone know you can’t talk now. My poor introverted brain doesn’t quite fit in with the culture, I’m afraid. If I were back in the PNW, though, I would go with your second answer. It isn’t rude at all, from my perspective, to let someone know that you must attend to other things.

      1. Lucy*

        I just googled PNW. Acronyms drive me ABSC. (Absolutely Bat Shit Crazy).

        Pacific Northwest? What does location have to do with.. oh, never mind. SOTDTNIR. (Skulking Off To Do Things Non-Internet Related)

  5. Sophie*

    I have a coworker who stands behind me silently when the conversation has ended and I have to tell him to leave or ask if he needs anything else. He has started picking up on the cues, thankfully. He LOVES to talk and ask all sorts of questions. Definitely one where I have to say, I’ve got a lot of stuff right now. It is funny to see him get into conversations with my manager, who LOVES to talk, especially about himself, so they have had 2 hour conversations in the hallway about nothing work-related. That’s when I don’t feel so bad about getting to work a few minutes late.

  6. Kay*

    Oh man, I used to have a boss who did that. It was hard to get rid of her, because she knew exactly what work I had and what the deadlines were, so I couldn’t make something up. I remember a few times she sat in my office for the entire day just talking at me.

    After she left, I still had occasional professional contact with her, and I always knew that I should only call her when I had an hour or two free…..

  7. Kat M*

    I have the hardest time with this! I’m in an office where there are usually only two of us (plus clients), and the other person there is always telling me about her personal problems. Constantly. For half an hour on end, multiple times a day. It’s so frustrating, because she’s both older and has more seniority, so my people-pleaser personality gets the best of me and I have a terrible time being assertive!

    Sucks. I wish I had more of a spine.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      As a personal favor to me, because this drives me crazy, spend three days being assertive about protecting your time and space, and see what happens!

  8. Jen*

    I used to have this problem. My cube resides in a high traffic area, so people were always stopping by to chitchat. The worst was when I had my “look of determination” plastered on my face as I tried to finish an assignment with a fast-approaching deadline, and coworkers would come into my cube to ask me what was wrong. So I borrowed a plastic chain from the manufacturing floor, and draped it across the entrance to my cube on the days where I could not afford to be interrupted. Yes, this wasn’t the most politically correct solution, but it worked. Furthermore, people began to associate my look of determination with “don’t stop in my office to socialize right now” and I no longer have to use the chain – they can tell when I’m super busy. I have seen a few other coworkers block their doorways with a chair to the same effect.

  9. Nev*

    Alison, your tips are great and very practical for an office type of job. I want to pick your brain on how this strategy could be adjusted when the person running out of time is a doctor who is with a very talkative or attention seeking patient. I mean the case when a patient schedules an appointment for one medical issue, and then she comes with a laundry list while the visit was appointed to last 15 min. The problem to interrupt the patient comes from two most common scenarios:
    1. All or most of the other medical issues are serious, and need to be addressed asap. But again, spending more time with the patient will ruin the schedule for the rest of the day,and the other patients will have to wait (which is unfair and reflects poorly on the doc’s performance).
    2. The patient does not want to schedule additional appointments to discuss the rest of her issues, and gets upset or reacts as if she is not getting the expected service.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think this gets to fundamental issues of how you want to manage patient relationships. For instance, when someone is scheduling an appointment, you might say, “We normally book 15 minutes with the doctor, which we’ve found is generally what’s needed for one issue. Do you expect to need more time than that, or to need to raise more than one issue?” That way, you’re setting expectations from the start, and it won’t be as jarring if you end up having to set limits in the appointment itself. Of course, then you might run into the problem of everyone saying they need more time than that, when you know that in reality 75% of them really don’t …

    2. khilde*

      Gosh, AAM is so smart. :) She has a really solid answer for everything.

      Nev, I don’t think my input here is necessarily going to help you in your dilemma, but it reminds me of the experience at my own doctor’s office. It’s hit or miss, but more often than not, appointments are running behind. When I first started seeing him, I was sort of annoyed by that until I got into the exam room and realized that he was truly taking time to visit, get to know you, and answer your questions. That being said, I try really hard not to be a PITA type of patient that saves up a bunch of different issues for one office visit. My entire point to this is to say that when I realized that he was running behind because he was giving all of us personal time and attention, rather than just shuffling us through the door, I was totally able to accept the delays. Again, this doesn’t really help you (especially if you have metrics or customer evaluations that play a factor), but I’d like to think that most reasonable people are willing to deal with a small delay if they know they’re getting their doctor’s attention (not just a cattle call) which is what most of us want anyway.

      For those patients that you learn chronically want more time than what’s standard, Alison’s advice to head it off up front is brilliant.

  10. Eva*

    “If you’re like most people … you want to be nice and aren’t sure how to assert yourself and protect your time in a way that isn’t rude.”

    Hmm, AAM, methinks you’re projecting those INFJ preferences a little bit here… ;)

    At any rate, you can count me among those who never have this kind of problem. In fact, my experience has been rather the reverse – I’ve had to learn to be more sensitive and to take better note of other people’s subtle cues. It’s not that I have any Aspie tendencies, it’s just that I’m naturally blunt (INTJ), and I was oblivious to the fact that there are others who communicate differently until I learned about personality types.

    That said, it’s good advice (as always) for those who *do* have the problem of hating to be rude. I’m just teasing you about your assumption that that’s ‘most people’.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ha! I am actually reallllllyyyy comfortable telling people to stop talking to me. Maybe a little too comfortable. But I watch other people and see that most of them clearly aren’t comfortable setting those boundaries.

      1. Eva*

        I stand corrected! Although I still have to wonder if your sample is biased toward more Feelers than the population in general. I would guess non-profits tend that way?

          1. Eva*

            Definitely! I’m not saying it isn’t very relevant advice. But probably close to half of us are not at all too nice for our own good, and we’re people too! *sniffle*

            (Though I’m not sure we read AAM as much as we should, so I’m not about to claim that a column on how to be more sensitive and diplomatic would be equally relevant.)

  11. The Other Dawn*

    We have someone in our office who is very long-winded and is an extrovert (painful for an introvert like me). It’s hard to get away from her sometimes. There have been a few times where I’ve said, “Sorry, but I really need to take care of XYZ and I can’t talk right now.” Other times, I hate to say it, I’ve resorted to pickup up the phone and dialing an automated system when I see her coming down the hall. Heads her off before she gets to my office.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        You’re welcome! I use the phone number for customer support at our core processing company; they have many menu options I can work my way through. ;-)

  12. Leslie C.*

    Sometimes if I’m in the middle of something and I keep getting interrupted with idle chit-chat, I’ll say something like “I know this sounds silly, but I can’t work on this and talk to you at the same time. My poor little brain just can’t multitask like that. How about I wrap this up and we can talk when I’m done?”

    This is especially helpful when I’m fixing computers for my coworkers (not an IT professional, just something that got tacked on to my job description), and whoever was having the computer problem stands by the desk and asks me if they have a virus, because they just read about this new virus on Yahoo today and don’t I know that we should really use Macs at work because Macs are so much easier and don’t get any viruses, etc. etc. etc.

  13. Another Emily*

    This is also good for people like me who don’t mind chatting a bit (but also don’t want to get distracted too much) to remember what we’re supposed to be focused on. :)

  14. Nethwen*

    Then again, some people will consider (b) or anything like it be rude. To some extent, a person has to decide that they are comfortable, or at least willing, to be rude in certain circumstances. Once one decides in one’s mind, ” Protecting my reputation for doing good work and finishing on time is more important to me than someone thinking I am rude,” then it becomes easier to assert oneself.

  15. Anonymous*

    There was once a Dilbert cartoon where the secretary comes along to talk, saying “This will only take five seconds.” After she’s talked that long, Dilbert’s response is “Liar.”

  16. Verde*

    b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b! And it’s not “not being nice”, either. It’s being to the point and not “nice” disguised as passive-aggressive, which is what choice ‘a’ is. Granted, if you’re doing that all the time because you’re always under the gun, then maybe you have some time management or workload issues you need to address. However, if it’s special circumstances, or an especially busy time of year for you, it’s okay to say “Hey, can this wait? I have a major deadline.” and then follow up later. Most people, if they don’t have an issue that’s completely on fire, will understand and be fine with catching up later, or sending you an email about it that you can answer at your convenience.

  17. AnotherAdmin*

    I am an introvert by nature (with some extrovert tendencies), but I’m not big on mindless small talk, so after years of working with every personality type imaginable I’ve learned to adjust my method of shutting down a talker gone wild to the individual’s personality. In my current office I have had a spontaneous blurter, a rambunctious over-analyzer, a soapboxer, a rambler, and a chit-chatter. The chit-chatter is easiest, I can say “I’m busy now” and he gets it. To the over-analyzer I literally hold up my hand and say, “Stop talking, let’s get to the point.” The rambler I have to say, “I have to finish this ASAP or I’ll never get to your work today.” (Amazingly effective.) The soapboxer got on a tangent one day and tried to follow me into the ladies room still yacking. I actually had to yell at him that he was not going in there with me and we were done with the conversation. He was a lot easier to get to stop talking after that! The spontaneous blurter was always the hardest – she was a nervous talker and literally could not stop talking until she got it all out. I tried everything under the sun, but it was easier to let her get it out and be done with it otherwise she just kept coming back. One long interruption was way better than a half dozen little ones.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      We have a spontaneous blurter in our office. I called her the fisherman. I call her that because she fishes for conversation. She will come out from her office into the main area and just toss out random things, hoping someone will “bite.” Inevitably, someone weakens and “bites,” which means they are hooked for at least 15 minutes of conversation. In her defense, though, she’s an extrovert that sits in an office by herself at the end of the hall so she’s probably starved for human contact.

  18. mh_76*

    I admit…I’m a talker and an extrovert, but I like to get my work done because that’s what I’m at work to do. 2-hour conversations in the hallway are out of the question and I’m certainly not going to follow someone anywhere (restroom or other) simply to say what I have to say.

    I’ve been on both sides of workplace banter – I’ve had to politely end conversations to get work done or because it was the end of the day and I had something scheduled after work and I’ve been asked to “talk later” plenty of times.

    I agree with answer b and with the other good advice. Another tip for phone talkers is to say that your boss wants to see you or that you have a meeting scheduled and have to prepare…unless that person is your boss or another close colleague, they likely won’t see through your bluff. If you have a good enough rapport with the caller, even say that you have to use the restroom. Another trick is to say that you have an incoming call…even better if you start the phone conversation with “I’m expecting another call but go ahead until it comes in” then BS about when it comes. Sometimes, BS is your friend :)

    -To the talkers: please please respect other people’s cues and requests to talk later or simply to go away. Remember: there will be times that you need to get your work done too.
    -To the “talkees”: with some people, you’ll have to be firm but always be nice, even to the people who you really don’t ever want to talk to. If the talking disruptions are –exreme– and are –severly– affecting your productivity, don’t be afraid to go to management but do be diplomatic and respectful of the talker as best you can.

    1. JT*

      I don’ t think anyone should make up stories about bosses or calls or whatever. If it’s true you don’t have time to talk, just say that. That’s enough. Just give a simple answer and turn away. Practice it. It’ll become easier.

      1. mh_76*

        Sometimes your suggestion works & sometimes one has to resort to BS. I’ve been in the workplace long enough to figure out when to switch from truth to BS both in person and on the phone.

  19. JT*

    Even if honesty doesn’t work all the time, if you use BS from time to time it’ll eventually come out, or people expect it from you, and you lose credibility.

  20. Anonymous*

    The ones I find most challenging are the ones who simply don’t seem to breathe or who breathe in unexpected places (ie, in the middle of phrases), because—having been socialized to not interrupt—I can’t find a place where they’re not talking to get my message through.

    1. khilde*

      Oh! So here’s the other side of this situation. I have a few people in my life who, like you, are very good listeners and don’t interrupt (“socialied to not interrupt” is a great way to put it). However, until I realized that about these people, I tended to ramble and keep talking because their silence unnerved me. And I had not yet practiced/matured enough to know how to just shut up when my point was made!! Once they told me that they don’t like to interrupt, I realized that I needed to stop talking after my point was made and be comfortable with some silence before their response.

      So, maybe for those people in your life that keep yammering, it could be a simple difference of style? I’d be curious if you told them this very thing (“I’m conditioned not to interrupt and have a hard time knowing in the conversation when you’d like my input”) to see what happeend. If nothing else, it’s a different way of looking at things.

      {See? My point was very simple, yet it took me like 2 paragraphs to spit it out. Sigh}

  21. Heather*

    I have a problem with a friend that is talking about me to people that stuff and i helped this person out so much and now this person won’t leave anyone only and it hurts me cause i have done so much for this person and i don’t now what to doabout this person I’m worried that I’m going crazy and this person saying that I’m the one that was saying things that this person thinks that I’m crazy about this and this person was rude to me on my birthday and the week before my grandpa on my moms side pasted away I’m not talking to this person please help me

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