how to manage an overly talkative intern

This week on the Ask a Manager podcast, I talk to a manager whose intern is way too talkative — and who has some boundary problems too.

The show is 23 minutes long, and you can listen on  Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

Here’s the letter that kicks off the discussion:

I could really use some advice on managing an inexperienced person. I have an intern this summer who is a loud, nervous talker and who occasionally slips into inappropriate topics of conversation. When discussing her work, she goes on and on, reiterating a question three or four times and explaining why she’s asking … all without taking a break to let me answer, even the most basic questions. For example, I manage our social media for the company, when she asked what our Twitter handle was, she asked “what was the Twitter handle? I just want to write it down so I don’t forget, or I guess I could just look it up. Like, duh, that wouldn’t be that hard. I should probably already know this, but I just haven’t been on twitter much. I mean, I posted those things you asked me about, but I wasn’t like ON Twitter to do it, so I didn’t notice what the company twitter handle was.”

Once or twice I have interrupted her by saying “ok,” and holding up a hand (like a “slow down” gesture), and answered her question. That went fine, but didn’t change anything. She shows no sign of getting comfortable, and I don’t know that she’s aware she’s doing it.

I know it is because she’s nervous. This is her first office job, and she’s pretty young, even for an intern. Other people have noticed and started avoiding her a little bit, and it has only been three weeks. 

And if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Leagle Beagle*

    Your response regarding the overly talkative intern is sensitive and finely calibrated. However, as I read the inquiry, I wondered — and I may be completely wrong about this — if the OP is not managing an intern with ADHD. Loud, repetitive (perseverative) talking, particularly in the manner described by the OP, can be symptoms of ADHD. That others are now avoiding the intern as a result of this social aspect also is a sign.

    Perhaps the intern merely is nervous and unused to the working environment. However, if the OP employs your strategy and it doesn’t “take,” it might be kind to refer the intern to HR or to her school for an evaluation. If a diagnosis is forthcoming, she can obtain counseling on social strategies that will assist her in managing these symptoms and being successful in the working environment.

    1. Bones*

      I have ADHD and thought the exact same thing– there’s only so much control you have over this kind of thing, and it really sucks to be seen as less than as a result of it. Meh.

        1. Autumnheart*

          Same here. I have “can’t remember lists of things” and “poor sense of punctuality” along with “Shiny object”, where whatever just captured my attention (the most recent email, the thing you just stopped by to tell me) becomes my new priority. I don’t have “motormouth” or its close relation, “Can’t stop interrupting people”.

    2. Elysian*

      Whether or not that’s true, it really isn’t appropriate for the manager to tell the intern to get diagnosed, even if there is a way to do it gently. It is up to the intern to manage her own medical things.

    3. Close Bracket*

      Loud, repetitive talking can be a symptom of many things. I advise against trying to make a diagnosis oneself or even recommending seeking a diagnosis because some of the things loud, repetitive talking is a symptom of are not diagnosable conditions.

      I would stick to pointing out the problem in specific terms, pointing out the effects on others, and telling them that it is in the best interest to find things that *they* can do to minimize it. I emphasized “they” because asking the people around them to tell them when they are monologuing is not a way to minimize it- that’s just a way to outsource management, not do it themselves.

  2. Early Annie*

    Alison, I just want to thank you for posting the transcripts of your podcasts. For many of us hearing impaired or hard of hearing, it is truly a blessing.

    I understand that podcasts are the future and here to stay, and I so appreciate a chance to “listen” in my own way. Again, thank you!

    1. Currently anon*

      Hurrah for transcripts, also hearing impaired here also but even in addition to that I can read much faster than anyone but the guy in the old Fedex ads talks so I prefer reading.

  3. Foreign Octopus*

    I haven’t listened to it yet but can I just say how much I appreciate you putting a way to listen to the podcast in the post. It’s so helpful to me.

  4. Fabulous*

    I once had an older woman, a financial advisor, whom I assisted who would over-explain like this when making requests or asking about her schedule and whatnot. It’s not just relegated to interns and people new to the working world.

    1. The Vulture*

      My boss does this. He knows he does it, and he manages not to do it with important people, but with the people he supervises he kind of views it as his prerogative (which I suppose it is!), but it’s a lot of “I don’t know if you heard me talk to this other person, or you already know this, but I just wanted to talk to you about it, I just think it’ll be good to go over it with you, it’s not a big deal, but…etc…etc” of course, that’s when he is being nice. If he doesn’t like you, you get a long, cold (or straight-up mean), and very detailed email.

      1. Massmatt*

        I used to work in a call center and some customers are like this. The worst was a guy who would gradually trail off in his preamble and then finally stop, expecting a response. Somewhere at the end there I guess there was finally a question?

        Or (and this was unfortunately more common) people who monologue and then complain how long they have been on the phone. Want a quick call? Don’t start off by giving me your life story and repeating your question 4-5 times!

    2. Ellex*

      My mother does this to an extent – I get a dissertation when all I needed/wanted was a yes or no answer. But I know that it’s a learned habit from working with other people who had the odd notion that simply answering “yes” or “no” to a question was hostile and unfriendly, and she must be upset if she answered anything briefly and succinctly.

      I haven’t met with this attitude to quite such an extreme extent in my own work experiences, but I have been “warned” about being “terse and unfriendly” in emails, so I see where the behavior is coming from.

      In a younger person, and from the sample given, I’d attribute this behavior to someone who hasn’t learned not to air their thought process out loud yet, which could simply be inexperience.

  5. ballpitwitch*

    Am I the only one who thought the whole bathroom conversation was really not that big of a deal? Unless it happened much differently than described, I don’t think saying you have to go to the bathroom is a huge work faux paus. Didn’t sound like she was describing in detail what she was going to do in there or anything.

    1. Enough*

      It’s that the conversation lasted too long. A simple ‘I would like a bathroom break’ is enough. Even simply asking when she would get a break is enough.

    2. rldk*

      It was something that I think would be a little awkward but unmemorable if it had been just in the normal workplace near coworkers. But given that it was at what sounds like a fairly important event near clients, there’s a much higher bar for behavior, and continuing to go on and mentioning explicitly that she needs to or will need to pee makes it awkward. In presenting a professional front as a representative of the organization, it falls short.

      (It definitely could have been worse though)

    3. Melissa*

      When I heard this part of the pod, I honestly felt that the Intern asked for a bathroom break but didn’t want to inconvenience anyone by making a request, and so she put a lot of qualifiers on it (I don’t need to go right now. But I’ll need to go soon, so I’m happy to go now if it’s not an inconvenience). I honestly think this is an effect of being young and not confident/assertive in making requests.

    4. All about that action*

      Yeah I agree!! The clients surely go to the bathroom themselves. I don’t think this is so terrible.

    5. Your friendly neighbourhood EA*

      Agree wholeheartedly, and was hoping others would feel the same way. I don’t think the problem here is that she asked for a bathroom break; it’s the same problem as the first segment of the podcast, she gives way too many qualifiers. Maybe the OP would be less bothered by it if she had simply said “I could use a bathroom break soon; can someone cover?” In which case there is no reason to address this as a separate issue from the talkativeness. But it would make a good example when pointing out the pattern!

  6. Snark*

    One of my new coworkers is like this, to an extent. Apparently, you basically just have to run him off the rails, as politely as possible. “Al! AL! More baby, less labor pains.” “AL! Bottom line up front, dude.”

  7. Logan*

    Regarding choosing a major – I heard 20 years ago that 70% of students change their plans during their school years. I suspect this number is still within that range, or at least more than half. Anyone who talks to me about having to make a decision usually gets a response similar to “It’s good to make a choice, but try not to let it limit you if you make new plans. Life is full of change. Just ensure that you do what is best for you.”

    1. All about that action*

      Agreed…college students do have to make a life decision with pretty limited information!!

    2. Pam*

      Today was a freshman orientation at my campus. We talked to 75 students who chose our business program up front, and another 10 who came in to ask about changing to our program. (after they attended their own program sessions)

  8. Episkey*

    I think even the bathroom break issue is more of an anxiety related/low confidence issue rather than an “inappropriate topic” issue. She’s just nervous about making the request and probably is erring on the side of deferential. I can certainly get why you don’t want a protracted conversation about it in front of clients, but it’s kind of like in Shawshank Redemption when Morgan Freeman’s character keeps asking the boss for a pee break, the guy finally says, “You don’t need to get my permission, just go!”

  9. Tomato Frog*

    Ha, I just came here fresh off of doing some nervous, unnecessary over-explaining to my poor coworker. I’ve really cut down on it over the years but it still pops up. It comes from self-consciousness in my case. I get into a mental cycle: I just said something stupid, how can I fix that? By saying something else! Oh no, that was stupid, too. What can fix that? Maybe something that acknowledges how stupid those last words were? Oh no, that sounded really dumb, too, how can I cover that up? and so on. For me, a smiling/chuckling interjection of “Don’t worry, I get what you’re saying!” or “Don’t worry, it’s not a problem!” would probably go a long way, as far as in-the-moment intervention goes. Even though I’m pretty self aware about it, I still occasionally get trapped in my sentences, and it’s much appreciated when someone reaches out a hand to pull me out.

  10. Close Bracket*

    Would it be possible to introduce a transcripts tag to make finding transcripts easier? Or could the posts with transcripts be included in the radio/podcasts tag so we can find them that way?

  11. BeenThere*

    The train of thought talking seems to be a hallmark of some millennials… and interjecting somewhat parenthetical remarks is part of it. I think the manager would be doing the intern a great service by sharing with them that they need to stop and think before they speak… and listen a lot more than they talk. We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak (Epictetus)

    1. Phoenix Programmer*

      I think interjecting generational steretypes and saying listen more than you talk is going to be very off putting. Alison’s script is perfect.

    2. Fabulous*

      You… you realize that some millennials are almost 40 right? And thus have a potential of 20 years workplace experience? We’re moving into Gen Z being the interns now, thankyouverymuch.

  12. Secretary*

    I’ve had this problem before. I grew up in a family where if I made a statement, it was automatically questioned. I just got used to giving my reasons before they were asked for to save time. It was a habit I had to break when I entered the work world.

  13. Dancing Pangolins*

    I think the advice for the first part was spot on, but I am not so sure about the major. Plenty of people end up in jobs completely unrelated to their major, not to mention they can change majors later on. But I’ll say that picking marketing as a major is a very solid choice because of how broad it is: you have social science, copywriting, design, digital marketing, lead generation, SEO, analytics, PR, etc — all transferable skills that can be used in other fields and jobs. So my advice would be to explore all majors, but if she chooses marketing, to dip into all subfields and related subjects — because it has something for everyone.

    I am also a bit concerned about over correcting the young intern and seeing her through the “she’s young, she makes quite few mistakes/errors of judgment ergo everything she does needs correcting” (aka halo effect). Not sure this is happening here, but it happens quite often, especially with young team members.

  14. Nicki Name*

    I think one of the things in play here is that women are socialized to act as nonthreatening as possible, even to the point of calling out our own flaws to knock ourselves down. I’m seeing some of that in the intern’s speech about the Twitter handle, and even in the questioner having been told she comes across as intimidating when she thinks she’s having a normal conversation.

    (I’ve experienced the same thing– at one job, I got feedback that my younger male co-workers found me intimidating, and the only thing that addressed it was me not speaking up in meetings at all. After developing that habit, I got dinged at my next job for not speaking up enough.)

    This is on my mind because I’ve just noticed it at a professional conference too. The men all just launched into their talks, but nearly every woman presenting started their talks by mentioning that they’re nervous, they don’t do much public speaking, etc. Women: it’s okay to have stage fright, but it’s also completely okay if you don’t announce it!

  15. Parcae*

    My boss does this when she’s anxious about something or (ironically) in a rush. With her, there is slightly less “repeated reframing of the same question” and more “eleven consecutive related questions without a break.” Fortunately, she doesn’t take offense when I interrupt her with a “stop” hand in the air, but when one of us is out of the office and she calls with a “Was the spout delivery deadline July 1st or October 1st? If it was July 1st and we missed it, we need to ~seventeen straight minutes of repetitive catastrophizing~,” it can be hard to shout her down long enough to say “The deadline is October 1st and the project is on schedule.” Y’know?

    I’ve been trying to figure out if I can have an overarching conversation with her about it. Obviously she’s not an intern who needs my career guidance, so the framing in the podcast wouldn’t work. I think she does better controlling herself around clients/outside stakeholders, so it doesn’t rise to the level of a organization problem that needs fixing, either. It just stresses me out to listen to her get so stressed out! I might be able to frame it as a way she could help me, if I can just think of a gentle way to say “Boss, sometimes you talk faster than I can think! Can you try pausing for breath sometimes so I can answer your questions?”

  16. Pam*

    On the ‘deciding on a major’ piece. Most Business programs are pretty flexible, with a core of classes common to everyone, and then more specialized programs. The intern may be able to start with pre-business, and then move into Marketing or whatever option she wants. She can also do other majors- as an example, Psychology and minor in Marketing on most campuses.

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