my coworker doesn’t take the hint that she’s interrupting me

A reader writes:

My company is generally pretty casual, collegial, and “open-door.” An employee on my team (not a direct report, but I review a lot of her work and am senior to her) who seems to lack a lot of common sense about professional norms has a tendency to walk right into my office when I’m working and begin a long-winded question without waiting for me to acknowledge her, make eye contact, or otherwise indicate that I’m available in any way.

I’m trying to be available to answer questions because she’s having a lot of performance issues and has tried to blame me for not “helping her” enough, but the constant interruption is driving me crazy. I’ve tried putting on a show of not looking up from my computer until she’s a few sentences in and acting confused and saying she needs to start over because I was focusing on my work, but this doesn’t seem to faze her at all. I’ve tried wearing headphones and pretending I don’t notice that she’s there (same result) and I’ve tried setting daily meetings with her and encouraging her to bring all of her questions then, but that doesn’t seem to discourage her from coming in 5-10 times per day with one off questions.

I answer this question — and two others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • CEO assigns work to my staff without talking to me
  • People ask me for favors and then never thank me

{ 117 comments… read them below }

  1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

    Use your words and tell her what you want, “putting on a show” is not any better of a demonstration of professional norms than what she’s doing.

    1. Octo*

      Right? I didn’t see “I told her to stop interrupting my work” in the list of things LW has tried. A lot of people don’t get a hint and need straightforward, clear, direct communication.

      1. Goldenrod*

        That’s true, but it’s one of those things that is obvious and easy to tell other people to do–but sometimes hard to do yourself.

        In theory, I 100% believe in clear, direct communication – but sometimes, it’s surprisingly challenging to actually put into practice when you are used to dealing with people who can get the hint.

    2. Caramel & Cheddar*

      It seems extra odd to take this approach if you think the problem with this employee is that they’re oblivious. She’s not going to pick up on these “hints”!

    3. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Came her to say exactly that. Have you specifically told her not to just start talking but to wait until you are ready?

      How does she learn professional norms if no one tells her?

    4. JustAnotherCommenter*

      Non-verbal communication that someone is busy is a pretty normal behaviour, it’s not inherently unprofessional to try and get someone to learn how to ‘read the room’ before sitting them down and directly telling them how oblivious and rude they’re being (in a professional way of course haha).
      I do agree that it’s time for OP to just be direct though.

      1. Roland*

        Giving subtle hints to let the person save face is normal, but if you’re at the point of “putting on a show” then it’s probably time to just use your words.

      2. Michelle Smith*

        Inherently unprofessional? Maybe not. But as someone who is bad at taking hints, I would be mortified to find out I’d been unintentionally rude for days or even weeks before someone decided to just tell me that my behavior was out of line so I could correct it.

        1. Yellow Rose*

          ^^ This. Especially if her not picking up on the non-verbal cue stems from a neuro-divergent condition. Speaking with her about it may provide enlightenment as to why she does this. It’ll also give you an opportunity to work out a signal indicating to her you are not available to answer her immediate question.

        2. Smithy*

          I think an influence on preferring nonverbal or soft cues is particularly heavy when someone doesn’t report to you and the overall guidelines aren’t clear. Essentially, we want an open door/collegial policy – but just the “right” amount. And the people who have to enforce it aren’t anyone’s supervisor – so that emphasis on being nice may be valued more greatly than being direct.

          In this case, it doesn’t change the advice to be more direct in this case where someone is truly disrupting your work this much. However, I do think in a lot of scenarios where the result isn’t as intense or a daily impact, most people in that situation won’t see a professional upside to being direct.

          For instance, there’s someone on my team that I find largely inaccessible and doesn’t do very high quality work. I’ve reported some stuff to my boss, particularly if it directly impacts me, but big picture I just avoid her and am “professionally nice”. Essentially, I assume her supervisor approves of her work overall, so I’m better served being respectful and collegial as a coworker. And using soft cues. The problem unfortunately is that can become a default response when someone does have more agency to be direct.

          1. JustAnotherCommenter*

            I think an influence on preferring nonverbal or soft cues is particularly heavy when someone doesn’t report to you and the overall guidelines aren’t clear.

            I think this is absolutely a part of why OP is hesitant to be direct. I’ve not been in their exact position, but I’ve been in a similar one and politely direct communication about it was seen as being overly self-important – my time should be just as interruptable as theirs and it doesn’t bother them to be interrupted, they would always stop what they were doing if I had a question for them so why shouldn’t I?

            Obviously, that’s my unique situation, but I do think some folks are wary of coming across as precious or too self-important, especially women, so they hold on to soft communication as long as they can.

      3. Pastor Petty Labelle*

        Also how does someone know they need to learn the hints if no one tells them? You aren’t reading the room and no one told you that you need to do that? Well you will figure it out on your own I’m sure …. from reading the room.

        1. Artemesia*

          well most humans grow up learning to read the room; this is particularly true of women since those with less power and strength have evolved to understand they have to watch out for themselves. So it is reasonable to expect any human you work with to be able to take a hint. For those who can’t, yes a sledgehammer is called for; the OP is obviously reluctant but she has no choice but to spell it out and also provide a regular meeting time. But this person also sounds like trouble e.g. whining it is the OP’s fault for not holding her hand enough and she should be alert to the possibility of firing her if she doesn’t improve.

          1. blerg*

            As a woman who actually is terrible at reading the room, can I just flag that while I totally agree with your general overall point please be really careful about those types of assumptions. I have gotten into hot water with other women who assume the same as you that my gender means I am practiced in subtle signals and therefore my ignoring of them must be purposeful/malicious. Being direct with people is a sign of respect and is the safest way to effectively communicate your specifics needs and desires. Starting subtle is fine, but if that’s not working do not take offense or assume bad intent, just get more clear.

        2. Joron Twiner*

          These are not subtle hints. The coworker started talking at someone who didn’t know to expect them and was not making eye contact or displaying any common listening behaviors. Halfway through coworker’s monologue, OP says, “[you] need to start over because I was focusing on my work.”

          Yes at this point OP needs to explicitly spell it out because coworker isn’t getting it.
          But it is completely reasonable to assume office workers would understand that they have interrupted someone. This is a social behavior learned by most people in childhood. If someone can’t get it for neurodivergent reasons, well, that can’t be helped, but most neurotypical people can and are expected to understand this level of social signaling.

      4. ferrina*

        Non-verbal communication can be a starting place, but it shouldn’t be an ending place. If someone isn’t getting a hint, then next thing to do is to tell them directly- “I can’t be interrupted right now. Please come back in 20 minutes.”

        There’s lots of reasons people don’t get hints. It’s really common in certain neurospicy conditions. It’s also pretty common for people who have an unstable home life (where as children, the adult role-models didn’t follow good practices). Or maybe they are tired, or distracted, or just from a different culture with different norms. Hints are like a secret code, and not everyone has the codebook.

      5. Skip Me*

        Getting someone to “learn how to read the room” by not saying anything to them is no helpful ever.

      6. Emily Byrd Starr*

        And some people struggle with nonverbal communication. I am such a person, and for the first forty years of my life, I didn’t even realize it: because when you don’t understand nonverbal communication, you don’t know that you don’t understand it. I often say that it’s like texting a landphone. Not only will the person not get your texts if you send them to the landphone, they won’t even know that you texted them in the first place.

        On behalf of all neurodivergent people (and neurotypical people who may not understand nonverbal communication for whatever reason), OP needs to just come out and be direct. If someone doesn’t take the hint, chances are, she’s not ignoring you on purpose.

    5. Beth*

      It sounds like OP did try other things, though–she set up a daily meeting and told coworker to bring her questions to that, and the coworker kept interrupting her at other times anyways.

      The next step here definitely is to directly tell the coworker not to interrupt her. But I understand why OP was hesitant to do that when the coworker has already tried to blame her for “not helping enough”! I think OP should be looping in their manager at this point. A quick FYI could cover her ass here–“I’m experiencing this problem, my solution is to offer daily meetings for questions and tell her to not interrupt me outside that, I know she’s complained about me not being helpful enough so I wanted to make sure you’re in the loop.”

      1. Artemesia*

        This. This is someone to document carefully. Note in your diary each time you assist her and keep an eye on her as someone who might not work out.

      2. JM60*

        The culture is one of allowing walk-ins and the OP says, “I’m trying to be available to answer questions”. So it’s reasonable for the employee to think that if they have a question that affects their work now, that they can have a walk-in today rather than wait for tomorrow’s meeting.

        The problem is how the employee goes about initiating the walk-ins.

        1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          Culturally speaking, there must still be some sort of limitation on the acceptability of walk-ins if OP has decided that the way to minimize them is to “put on a show” of waiting a few beats, then feigning being surprised when the employee walks in. (Instead of, you know, saying “Hey, you absolutely must either save your questions for our daily check-ins or, if they’re truly urgent, message me a quick summary on Teams and I’ll let you know when I’m at a stopping point and we can touch base real quick. This thing where you walk in and start talking without knowing what I’m already in the middle of or whether I’m available, that’s very disruptive to my work.”)

          1. JM60*

            OP has decided that the way to minimize them is to “put on a show” of waiting a few beats

            That’s not the purpose of the OP’s purpose of .putting on a show (if I read it correctly). Rather, the purpose of this show is stop the employee from beginning with “a long-winded question without waiting for me to acknowledge her”.

            In other words, the problem is how the employee goes about initiating the walk-ins.

  2. singularity*

    Is it possible for the first LW to close her office door and post ‘available hours’ when she’s free to talk to others about questions? Even a sign that says, “Unavailable – Come back in 1 hour” or something.

    Obviously that depends on your work norms and whether or not that’s considered acceptable where you are, but if you do it and she still barges in and starts talking, you need to say, “I’m unavailable right now. Come back in one hour,” and then stick to it. It sounds like this person isn’t a good fit anyway.

    1. ADH...Squirrel!*

      Yeah, I think the sign step is too late.
      OP needs to tell her to stop doing what she is doing.
      OP needs to tell her to start doing what OP would prefers she does.
      And I agree it’s a bad fit.
      Either this person will not make decisions about what to do next and needs almost coddling guidance, or this person simply doesn’t understand what to do next and needs someone to help her do her job.
      Neither is promising.

    2. Brian*

      But they don’t want to run off people with actual work related issues. They just don’t have time to hang out and chat.

      1. MassMatt*

        The coworker isn’t chatting, LW says there are issues with the coworker’s work performance, and is asking questions about the work. AND blaming LW “not helping her enough” for her issues. Which is not a good sign.

        To me it seems as though the coworker’s manager needs to be looped into this. Maybe this workplace is really informal and collegial but someone going to a senior they don’t report to with 5-10 involved questions per day is a lot. Why isn’t she asking her manager? Shouldn’t her manager be the one helping her?

        1. I am Emily's failing memory*

          It’s not unheard of for certain positions to report to someone who just handles the administrative aspects of management but can’t help with subject matter questions. For instance, I manage a graphic designer and a web developer who are embedded with my team to support our communications efforts. I help them manage their workloads, deadlines, and professional relationships and I approve their PTO and expense reports, but I’m neither a designer nor a developer so I can’t help either of them with work-related questions. They’re expected and invited to bring questions to senior colleagues in the central Creative and IT departments.

    3. Antilles*

      I don’t see that as a good solution. The closed door and posted hours implies “do not disturb” for everybody. Perhaps that would succeed in shutting down this individual employee, but it would ALSO put off everybody from asking appropriate and legitimate questions. There’s nothing in OP’s letter indicating that the rest of the office is a problem, just this one employee.

      Don’t make a blanket policy change when it’s only one person; simply make the correction for that one person.

      1. Bast*

        I don’t think that having “focus time” in general is a bad idea, particularly if you are in a field where you are getting constantly interrupted by various people. While it may not be helpful to the LW as the person in this scenario seems oblivious, a closed door and a “Do Not Disturb” sign can be great for a couple of hours when you just can’t have any interruptions and need to get something done. While a little corny, one office I worked in had a “Red Light” that you could put on your door when you really needed to focus and couldn’t be disturbed unless the building were burning down, and “Green Light” meant “I am available if needed.” It actually did help, as people would turn around and walk away if they noticed the Red Light sign was on someone’s door. You were, however, supposed to limit your “Red Light” time and at least have an hour or two a day where you were a “Green Light.”

        1. Freya*

          My boss regularly has blocks of time that have been allocated to something that needs concentration, like a tricky payroll. At any other time, as long as they’re at their desk and not wearing a headset, we can walk over and interrupt. But when boss is elbows deep in the guts of a tediously complicated payroll, we hold our questions until after it’s done.

          There’s a number of things that make this work: knowing when it’s started, knowing when it’s finished, knowing that coworkers will help you triage if it’s an emergency question and will know who to ask or where to find the answer if it’s within their capabilities, and knowing that if it’s a rare true emergency that can’t wait for an hour or two then the _occasional_ interruption will be OK.

    4. Zesty frozen lemons*

      “Unavailable – come back in 1 hour” is the “Free beer – tomorrow” of the office world and I’m down for it.

  3. Bad Wolf*

    Ha! This is totally my husband. (we both WFH). He walks into my office and just starts talking. I ignore him. He stops to say – “oh, are you working?” I mumble a “yeah” and he just resumes his monologue.
    I obviously don’t have any good advice for OP.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      ” I mumble a “yeah” and he just resumes his monologue.”

      We should set our husbands up on a play date so they can monologue at each other and we can work lol

      1. 3DogNight*

        That would be awesome! Can I send mine?
        He will go a step further, see me with the headphones in, and say are you on a call? Then talk anyway.

        1. Bad Wolf*

          OMG. My man and phone calls!
          We are both bi-lingual. We share English. But when we speak with our respective families, it’s typically in our native language. So I’ll be talking to my mother, and he just starts monologueing at me on a completely random topic. And I’m like – Dude, I can’t even understand you right now because my brain has switched to Polish!

        1. Miss Fisher*

          Tell me why a 3 hr car ride can be dead silent for 2 hours or so until I decide to put my headphones in. Drives me insane.

          1. justanobody*

            No one in my family wants to talk to me in the car until I turn on the radio. Then they want to talk.

            1. Bast*

              This is me when I’m reading a book. The second I sit down in my house and read a sentence or two, someone needs something. I reread the sentences and start over… Now it’s someone else.

          2. Student*

            Because FOMO.

            Suddenly, your attention is conspicuously and visually unavailable, so your spouse/family suddenly want it back NOW in a reflexive, thoughtless way. Not FOR anything. They just notice the loss of something they feel ought to belong to them, and react – like a poorly trained pet pawing at the bathroom door the moment you step out of its sight.

    2. Brain the Brian*

      I have this with roommates and the kitchen. I will go hours and hours without using it, but the second I step into it to make dinner, suddenly my roommate wants to use it, too. Meanwhile, if they do go in there when I want to use it, I wait until they’re finished, and then an appropriately respectful length of time afterward so it doesn’t look like I was waiting disgruntled. This has persisted across at least five roommates in a row, and it makes me craaaaaaaazy.

    3. I feel like a nut*

      A long ago ex used to do that to me, but God forbid I did anything similar, like try talking to him when ESPN was on.

    4. Baunilha*

      My husband does that too, so I specifically asked him to please please get my attention before starting to talk, otherwise I lose track of what I’m doing AND still can’t grasp what he’s saying. It’s been working, but it takes a lot of “remeber when I asked you to try and get my attention first…?”

    5. Freya*

      I remember one specific incident with my grandmother – she was visiting and one evening, she walked into the loungeroom where one adult and one child were reading and a second child was doing homework. She stood in the middle of the room and started talking to/at us, and it didn’t seem to matter that we all kept doing what we were doing.

  4. Old lady*

    Was there ever an update for LW#1? It sounds like the interrupting employee was close to a PIP since the writer states she has work issues. She may just not be the right person for the job.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      No update to the first letter but it was originally published in January of 2020. It might have been resolved by the letter-writer speaking up, but it also could have been resolved by pandemic work-from-home.

        1. just here for the scripts*

          I assume that this would include all smelly lunches, messy kitchens, solo ownership (by department) of small fridges/water cooler issues

        2. Texan In Exile*

          I’ll start.

          Microwave/fish/burned popcorn
          Bathroom wait and bathroom cleanliness
          Lack of cats/not enough cats
          Chatty co-workers
          What you keep on your desk
          Having to take a shower every. single. day.
          Office temperature
          Signing for deliveries to house

        3. Hlao-roo*

          A short sampling from the May/June 2020 updates (some were partially resolved by WFH and partially resolved from letter-writers implementing the advice):

          Coworkers being chatty/annoying/gross:

          “Can I ask my coworkers to stop talking so much about the coronavirus?” from March 26, 2020. Update June 15, 2020

          “my new coworker seems to be asking us if he should cheat on his wife” from January 20, 2020. Update June 5, 2020

          Less than ideal office/work travel situations:

          “I’m in recovery and my office just moved above a bar” from November 6, 2019. Update May 14, 2020

          “our boss told us to camp in tents when we travel for business” from January 21, 2020. Update May 19, 2020

          Needy boss:

          “my needy boss wants me to “adopt” her” from January 7, 2020. Update May 6, 2020

  5. Ginger Cat Lady*

    Any time your question is “someone is not taking the hint….” the answer is always going to be “have you tried direct communication?”
    I have a friend who works HR and we’ve joked that she needs this on a T shirt, or a button or something. Maybe a fancy lettered sign in her office.

    1. It's true*

      right? and a invitation to re-ask the question because letter writer was business is confusing. you’re hunting that you’re busy but also opening the door for the questions/interruptions then going off about how the person is rude? Expectations followed by judgement that someone read your mind rather than directly communicating your needs is rude.

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      Yep. I think half of these letters are answered by “use your words”.

      I have no idea why we as a species have such a hard time telling other people what the deal is. Cats and dogs certainly don’t and they generally seem pretty happy.

      1. Allonge*

        I suppose because we as a species are also bad at taking feedback that is negative on any level. Cats and dogs don’t have RSD, anxiety or just general bad self-confidence that often.

  6. Generic Name*

    No. 1 is so frustrating to read. I try to be aware of other’s nonverbal signals, but sometimes they just skip right by me, especially if I’m preoccupied or very focused on something else. Years ago, I had a coworker who complained to management that I was “a distraction”. So I got moved to a basement office and I would get scolded anytime a manager thought they heard me talking to colleagues. I wracked my brain over what I did wrong specifically and how to change my behavior, because they never gave details or provided examples when I asked. All I could think of was the times I went into this coworker’s office to ask a question (which I always prefaced by asking if he had a moment and he always said “yes”), was the problem. I felt like I was being punished for not being a mind-reader. Please do your coworker a favor and tell her using words when you do and do not have time. If you want to only answer questions during set times of the day/week, say that.

    1. Bast*

      It sounds like they did try setting meeting times with person specifically for them to ask questions, and they kept coming back anyway.

  7. CB212*

    Alison suggests setting a daily meeting to bring all the questions to, but LW1 is already doing that! And the employee still walks in at every random impulse! This would drive me bananas.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      Alison is suggesting explicitly connecting the dots to say “We have a daily meeting for this, so stop coming into my office with questions outside of that”.

      It sounds like the LW set up the meetings, but never said to stop dropping by.

    2. Bast*

      Unfortunately, I think LW needs to be more direct to say that unless something is a real, true emergency (and then lay out what constitutes a real, true emergency), ONLY come to my office during the set times to discuss the questions. Write them for the meeting time, and save them for that. It seems to be person still thinks it’s a free for all to come in whenever, and it absolutely can be distracting.

      Are these problems the asker can solve on their own, I wonder? Sometimes people just want an easy answer and don’t want to try to problem solve on their own.

    3. Ursula*

      Yes, but she’s not enforcing it. When the employee comes in with a question, she should be interrupting her and saying, “Please bring this to our 2pm meeting, I’ll answer it then.” I’ve seen this a lot before here, where people try to implement Alison’s advice to tell the other person something, but then just let the person ignore what they said. They have to actually hold a boundary for it to work as a boundary.

    4. Beth*

      Yes, reading that made me frustrated on LW1’s behalf! As do a lot of the comments here. Yes, not everyone is good at picking up on hints, and direct communication is the next step when someone isn’t reading the room on their own. But I don’t think there’s been a lack of clear communication here. OP told her coworker to save up questions for a daily meeting, and when the coworker interrupts outside that meeting time, OP is wearing headphones and telling them that she’s focused on work. It doesn’t take strong social intelligence to understand that you should stop interrupting in a scenario like that.

      1. metadata minion*

        It might be reasonable to expect that the coworker would pick up on this these hints, but *they clearly haven’t*. Setting a meeting to go over questions doesn’t automatically mean that you can’t ask questions outside of that time, and while headphones are often code for “don’t interrupt me”, for other people they just mean “I like to listen to music while I’m working”. It would take much less time and effort to just sit the employee down and use straightforward language than it is to keep dropping “hints”.

        1. Freya*

          When I put my earbuds in for music, I prefer to let my co-workers explicitly know that it’s OK to interrupt, every time that it’s OK (or only put in the one that they can’t see from 95% of the office). It’s more common that I don’t have earbuds in, so this is fairly infrequent. But because I’ve made that habit, they assume that if I haven’t said it’s OK to interrupt and I have visible earbuds or headphones, then it’s not OK and the most they do is silently ask if I want a drink refill if they’re going past my desk on the way to the kitchen.

  8. witch*

    I have an open door workplace with a similarly chill atmosphere and the first thing I say is, “Do you have a second or should I put 15 on your calendar?”

    People, I think, tend to think of meetings as a big formal thing — but for me and the company I work for, we’ve gotten used to scheduling out short 1:1 “hey here are my questions.”

    I’ve also had really really good traction with telling someone, “I’m pressed for a deadline, can you email me so I don’t forget?” sometimes people get obsessed with figuring something out they interrupt people doing their own work. Even i’ve done that before. But you need to just flat out tell the other person what action you want from them. being pleasant but direct is the most fair for you AND her.

    1. Hannah Lee*

      I’ve got one co-worker who habitually communicates face to face, often when they happen to come across someone they have a question of or information for (me, the CEO, their peers, they do it pretty much to everyone.

      I’ve noticed that 90% of the time when I’ve asked him “could you please email me the details of what you’re asking for?” he says sure and then doesn’t do it. Or doesn’t do it for days.
      It’s puzzling? What is so urgent that he needs to stop people in their tracks to ask them right that second but so non-urgent that he doesn’t bother to follow up on it.

      He’s also someone who will sometimes email me about something we haven’t discussed and then immediately walk over to my office and ask me whether I had any questions on his email.

      My best guess is he’s someone who when he’s got something on his mind he feels compelled to immediately act on it, pass it on to the next person, instead of being able to queue and manage open action items, follow ups in a way that allows for asynchronous workflow. But it’s really annoying to have someone repeatedly expect immediate responses, feedback on everything even non-urgent items that the rest of the company tends to work through on “batch” mode.

      1. Brain the Brian*

        I get really anxious and stressed about sending an email later, because written word is so much more final than spoken. If I screw it up in writing, there’s no chance to say “Wair, I didn’t mean that” and then correct myself.

        The flip side of this is that if I see someone in the hallway, I feel like I can’t just say hello without also acknowledging whatever action items I have with them. If I don’t mention a question in that moment, I feel like I can’t ask it later because they’re likely to say “Why didn’t you just ask me this when you saw me earlier” and get annoyed with me.

        1. Hannah Lee*

          That’s a good point. There’s likely a few reasons why he takes those approaches.

          What approach do you use when making requests that are more than a simple “Hey, are you going to release the weekly TPS report today?” question? (when there are details that have to be communicated from you to them in order for you to get exactly what you need, and say, the person you ran into doesn’t have a notepad with them to take down all the details so they’ll have them when they get back to their desk to do the thing)

          1. Brain the Brian*

            I try to send those via email, and I usually spend most of the day editing and re-editing such emails so that I make sure I haven’t left out anything or asked something in the wrong way. I should note that most of my immediate coworkers are located in other countries, so it’s impossible for me to “run into” them in the hallway and pre-empt something I’m already drafting back at my desk.

      2. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        “I’ve noticed that 90% of the time when I’ve asked him “could you please email me the details of what you’re asking for?” he says sure and then doesn’t do it.”
        Sometimes, as he writes out the details, he’ll find the answer on his own, and no longer needs your input.
        I get the impression this is the kind of person who needs a sounding board. They need to say something out loud in order to know what they think, and thus in order to come to a decision. They much prefer talking through their problems. They don’t need you to say anything beyond “hmm” and “oh right”. They just can’t think in their head, they don’t have an internal monologue. It’s truly infuriating for those of us that do.

  9. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    It’s also ok to simply respond to the first verbal dump with “OK, I’ll be done with this in about 15 minutes. I’ll message you when I’m done and you can come back and we’ll talk about it.”

    Or “That’s a lot. Could you email the details to me while I finish up what I’m doing? I’ll be available at 2:00.”

    In other words, feel free to acknowledge that they exist, but don’t answer their question unless they’ve come back and tried again the way you want them to.

    1. witch*

      yep! you can acknowledge you’re listening to her in the same breath as giving her guidelines to follow up in the way that you prefer. it’s not rude to tell her to come back in a minute or put bulletpoints in an email so you can gather your thoughts.

      Especially if it’s a question that you’ll have to actually THINK about. set aside time to get it right the first time–people aren’t computers, you need a moment to mentally reset and it’s okay to take that for yourself.

    2. Harper the Other One*

      I think this is key. Right now this is working for the employee because the issue/question is being addressed on the spot. Delaying even by the 15 minutes will probably help a lot!

      That said, I also agree with commenters above that OP should address this directly, so my first step would be to talk to the employee when there isn’t a question at hand to say “here is how we’ll do this from now on” and then reinforce it every time they come in.

    3. Some Words*

      Better also come up with a response to “this’ll only take a second though” and then ask their question anyway. This will happen more often than not.

      1. Bast*

        This is more for a meeting but : “I understand this may only take a minute for you, but it takes me another 20 minutes to pick up where I left off on whatever I was doing and redirect my focus back to whatever I was working on. I really need to be able to focus to complete my own work on time. Please save all questions for our 3:00 meeting unless it is a true emergency.” (LW will then need to outline what is and is not a true emergency). The next time Person comes to their door before meeting time.

        LW: “Is this an emergency?”
        Person: “No, but it will only take a second…”
        LW: “Write it down and we can discuss it at 3.”

        If every time they come by and are met with “We can discuss it at 3” or whatever other meeting time it is, at the very least it will be less of a distraction for LW (it will get to be an autopiloted response) and at best, hopefully the Person in Question will ask themself this before stopping by and maybe just start writing the question down once they realize “We’ll discuss it at 3” is the only answer they will get until 3.

    4. Margaret Cavendish*

      Yes, this is important! In addition to all the big-picture proactive conversations that Alison suggested, you should also have a plan for dealing with her in the moment. When she comes to you after you have the big picture conversation, you say “this is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about – I need you to put this in an email/ wait for our meeting/ whatever.”

      And you need to do this *every time.* Because if you defer most of her questions but answer a few of them – you’re still answering her questions. So she’ll do the mental math and realize that you’re answering 20% of her questions, which means she still needs to ask X questions per day in order to get Y answers. So the answer always, always, has to be “I can’t help you right now.”

      I know this is an old letter and OP was very likely interrupted by Covid, but I hope it’s all resolved now!

  10. Guacamole Bob*

    Alison’s advice is good, but I’d add that OP needs to redirect in the moment. If the colleague stops by, you can say “I’m in the middle of something, can you email me/can you find time on my calendar/can you come back at 2/can we add this to our agenda for our next check in/I’ll come find you when I’m available”, as appropriate. If interrupting continues to result in the colleague getting what they are looking for, the more general request to approach OP differently is much less likely to work.

  11. Caramel & Cheddar*

    The interruptions are annoying, but I think LW also needs to know that just because you work in an open door environment, doesn’t mean people should just walk in and start talking! I’ve never worked somewhere where “open door” meant you didn’t still need to knock on the open door. It’s still an interruption since it draws your attention away from your work, but at least it’s a chance to be alerted to someone else’s presence before they launch into something.

    Asking the employee to at the very least knock before entering seems like a very minimal ask that could help a lot.

  12. Anonym*

    Oh I feel for LW 2. My old workplace had this as a constant theme. Then we’d get scolded for not accomplishing the things which we actually needed to do, but were constantly redirected by the CEO and department head who never said boo to him. After a while it became evident that he felt our department was nothing but paper-pushers and rubber stampers, therefore we should ALWAYS have time to work on his much more important, much more challenging and fascinating tasks. Of course.

  13. Delta Delta*

    I used to work across the hall from someone in this LW’s position. It was a constant stream of people in and out all day and it made me wonder if they ever could get any work done.

  14. HonorBox*

    LW1 may need escalate this beyond just “use your words” shortly. The thing that stood out to me is that the coworker is struggling and blaming LW for not being more helpful. It is one thing, as someone senior to another, to be willing to help and answer questions. But that senior individual also has a job to do, and constant interruptions are causing issues for them, too.

    Of course, it would be best for the LW to very clearly state that at certain times, they’re unable to stop to help, but could be available at X time. If it continues, though, raising the concern with their boss is probably in order. “Boss, I’m interrupted 5-10 times a day by coworker, and I’ve told them I have time to discuss things with them at X. I’ve set up meetings specifically to give them my undivided attention. And I’m concerned because they’re telling people that I’m not helpful enough. I am losing quite a bit of time each day because of these interruptions, and while I’d like to be helpful, I can’t be as helpful if I’m constantly interrupted from my own work.”

    1. It's true*

      I had a co-worker go around telling people I wasn’t helpful and blaming me for her incompetence. I didn’t bother to do anything because I know I have a reputation for being helpful, and honest so she was simply digging herself a hole I wasn’t willing to visit her in.

      That letter writer doesn’t communicate directly, gives off conflicting hints and is so worried about what people think makes me question her interpretation of the situation.

    1. Bast*

      I’d set a hard and fast time (which it seems LW may have already done). “Later” is vague, and you may find the same person coming back multiple times and asking, “Is this a good time? Did you forget I need to talk to you?”

  15. Spicy Tuna*

    Schedule one or two daily check ins where she can ask all of her questions.

    I run a business with my husband and that’s how we handle things – or, at least, that’s how I handle things. He interrupts me at will!

    1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

      LW has done that! They get interrupted anyway. Which tells me they probably haven’t been clear enough that all questions need to be held for the daily check-in unless they are time-critical.

  16. SusieQQ*

    Re: LW3

    Allison has published one of my letters before, and after reading Letter 3 I became overwhelmed with anxiety that maybe I never thanked her! Turns out I did send her an email saying thank you though, whew! (And Allison, if you’re reading this, thank you *so much* for this column.)

    I don’t know if anybody else feels this way, but sometimes I don’t send thank you messages to Very Busy People because I view that as one more email, or one more Slack message, when it maybe seems unimportant since there’s no action item. And I convince myself that the kind thing is to not send any communication that isn’t absolutely necessary. But I think Letter 3 is a good reminder that saying thank you *is* important!

    1. I'm a Pepper*

      I have also been feeling a similar worry, as I feel the same as you about “unnecessary” emails/messages!

      I did a quick little mental evaluation of myself, and I think if I’d been reaching out to someone I don’t know or work with regularly (like LW was describing) I’d be more inclined to send a thank you/acknowledgement email. Especially if I was asking someone a favor – in that case I might go all the way and send a physical thank you letter (my preferred method when available).

      My boss – who is lovely, no real complaints at all – always sends a quick “thank you” email for small, common tasks I complete, and it lowkey drives me bonkers. It catches my attention in case it’s a new task or instruction, but it’s just another email I need to delete. It’s such a small annoyance that I have no desire to do anything about it, but it’s one of those things I know people can be quite divided on!

      1. Bast*

        I agree — it is more divisive than meets the eye at first. At Old Job, Big Boss banned emails/inter office messages that had no actionable item/item of substance in it. While I was pretty good at just deleting and moving on, other people (including her) weren’t so much, and found them distracting. Some people had hundreds of emails and messages, half unopened, and the actual tasks and actionable items would get buried underneath 100 reading messages “Thank you” and “Okay.” I would routinely help people sort through their messages to find the good stuff and would be like, “Why haven’t you deleted this??? It isn’t saying anything.”

  17. Copyright Economist*

    This is the start of Neurodiversity Celebration Week. Some estimates suggest that one in five people are neurodiverse, including possibly OP’s co-worker. I suggest direct communication. Not everyone responds to non-verbal cues.

    1. Observer*

      I suggest that you go back and read the letter and the comments (it’s linked above.)

      The CW may have been neurodiverse but that was not the problem. Allison was (and is) completely correct that the LW needed to be more explicit. But once you look at what the LW had already tried it becomes pretty clear that this person has issues that make it questionable if she can do the job. And in any case, that she was being fairly unreasonable. (Eg not taking notes when asking questions, and then repeatedly asking about the same thing.)

    2. Orv*

      Yeah, my experience is some people don’t take hints and essentially force you to be rude to them.

      1. metadata minion*

        I get that to you it feels rude, but to the people you’re speaking to it feels unkind and baffling to expect them to figure out what you mean when you won’t just be polite and straightforward and say what you mean. Different people have different conversation standards!

        1. Emily Byrd Starr*

          Exactly. As I said in another comment, giving indirect hints to someone who doesn’t get them is like texting a landline- they simply aren’t going to get the message that way.

      2. ACM*

        “direct” =/= rude.

        Don’t insult or namecall. Use specific words. There’s a huge difference between “Kendra, you’re coming in and interrupting me a lot and this isn’t sustainable. I have work I need to get done, too. We have to come up with a new arrangement for when you have questions.”

        and “Hey, fuckface, you’re wasting hours of my life with your prattle and I don’t want to look at you, what kind of stupid are you to not know what headphones in means”

      3. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

        Orv, why would you need to be rude to them?

        Be clear. Literal. Specific. Use examples. Keep it simple. None that needs to be rude.

  18. Marshmallows*

    I was hoping this was going to be advice on how to get someone to quit interrupting you in a meeting or talking over you (usually to just repeat what you said)… I have a coworker that does that so much it’s almost comical and her boss has a soft spot for her so he refuses to do anything about it.

    Lately I’ve been being very pointed about saying, “I just said that” or “please let me finish my thought before you jump in”, but it doesn’t work. She keeps doing it and her boss won’t do anything and won’t let me be more aggressive about it. I would if I thought I wouldn’t get in trouble. But I’m certain I would.

    1. BikeWalkBarb*

      Do you put your hand up when you say “Please let me finish” or “One second, I’d like to finish my thought and then I’d love to hear what you have to add”? That physical gesture can help break the flow. I think of it as my crosswalk hand: I hold it up when a driver keeps inching forward while I’m walkin’ here.

  19. VP of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

    My company is generally pretty casual, collegial, and “open-door.”

    Maybe close the door at certain times, with a notice to the team that your door WILL be closed from X:XX to Y:YY and they are not to disturb you (except for actual emergencies, of course).

  20. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

    #1 The troublesome coworker might even be quite aware of the OP’s hints, but knows her job is on the line so she deliberately ploughs ahead and interrupts because she is flundering and desperately needs answers about everything, all the time.

    1. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      and she doesn’t give a damn that she’s hindering the OP’s work.
      She’s already trying to blame the OP for her problems so she obviously has no scruples about what she does in her frantic attempts to save her job.

  21. learnedthehardway*

    Rather than pussyfooting around and hoping your co-worker gets the hint, you need to name the issue, and ask her to stop. In fact, provide an alternative for her to communicate with you.

    Eg. Esmeralda, I like working with you, but I can’t be talking to you all the time. It interrupts my concentration and workflow when you pop into my office. I need you to book an appointment on my calendar, if you need to talk to me for more than five minutes. If it’s a short thing, please realize that I might not be able to stop my work to talk. Please send me an email or instant message, if I can’t stop to chat.

  22. Chris*

    I wonder what percentage of AAM questions can be boiled down to “someone isn’t taking the hint”. Of course, the answer is almost always “be explicit and name the issue”.

  23. AnonInCanada*

    “”Of course, if you occasionally have something that can’t wait, that’s fine — but I’d like to funnel most of it into those standing meetings.”

    Which the employee will interpret as “nothing can wait,” will keep interrupting the OP, and it’s back to square one. Methinks OP should’ve been more firm with her. I’d personally would’ve blown a gasket at her if she kept pestering me with questions every five minutes when I’m trying to focus on my work, and wouldn’t take the hint after hitting her over the head with a clue-by-four as to basic decency when you need to ask a question of someone. Was there even an update to this letter when it was originally posted? I would be intrigued by how things worked out.

  24. cosmicgorilla*

    Setting up a daily meeting is a good idea. I want to know though, how are you following through?

    When person walks in at 10, 10:45, 11, 12, 12:15, etc., each and every time, you say, “let’s save that for our 3:30 meeting.”

    “I’m focused on something time-sensitive now. We’ll discuss at 3:30.”

    “I asked you not to interrupt me during the day. I’ll see you at our scheduled time at 3:30.”

    Every time you answer a question outside the scheduled time, you are reinforcing the notion that they dont have to wait. Boundaries are only as good as your willingness to enforce them.

    1. Generic Name*

      This. Several commenters are jumping in and saying, “But OP has done this already!!”, and yes, she has set up meetings. But OP doesn’t say that they redirect all questions to that meeting (if they did, I missed it- I did not go back to the original and read that version/every single comment there). Again, the OP needs to explicitly connect the dots for this employee. Is that unreasonable? Probably? But that’s not what the OP asked. They asked for how to stop the interruptions, not if what she had tried already was reasonable in an AITA-style question.

  25. Semi-retired admin*

    This one seems so easy to me…make eye contact, hold up your index finger, and say “Hang on, I’ll be right with you.” Next step would be “I’m in the middle of something, I’ll come to you when I’m finished.”

  26. Have you had enough water today?*

    Oh my goodness…I could have written the CEO letter! This is a common issue for me but the tasks he assigns are very rarely priorities, or even work related. He is asking for things like posters to be made for his wife’s latest MLM “business”, or arranging parties & holidays for his family, or sourcing hay for the farm they have, or, my favourite (sarcasm), getting his car detailed each week. We are not allowed to bump any of his items, so in the end HR employed an extra person part time on my team to make sure we had the personnel to cover gaps caused by these ridiculous demands.

  27. Raida*

    I’m trying to be available to answer questions because she’s having a lot of performance issues and has tried to blame me for not “helping her” enough…

    Oh REALLLY? Well in THAT case…
    Set up times each day/every other day that you are available, encourage her to put together her questions and come to you organised for these times – this shows you’re training her how to manage her time and be effective, not just answering technical questions.

    She can work within the boundaries you set, and if she keeps “failing to follow a simple guideline” then that’s another mark against her at work – not your fault.
    Hell, go talk to her manager about how you’re intending to handle this – they might not know how she’s interrupting you, they might not know how generous and gracious you’ve been out of sympathy for her, and… you could ask if there’s anything performance wise they’d like to know from your interactions with her… like being organised and having a plan when asking a co-worker for help and utilising the space made available to her for training…

    1. BikeWalkBarb*

      I was thinking this too since Interruptor isn’t LW1’s direct report. Their manager needs to know in order to assess how they’re doing as an effective team member, and should be training them on things they don’t know and coaching them on interacting with others.

      This whole thing has me thinking about the way we lose time and thought processes when we have to change abruptly. Task switching has a very real mental cost. This person is costing LW attention and continuity multiple times a day. No question is only 30 seconds: It’s 30 seconds plus disengaging from first task, answering, and re-engaging with first task.

  28. Tussu*

    Oh my god, number 2 is amazing. In an alternate universe it’s definitely the plot of a Seth Rogan film.

    1. Tussu*

      Ahh! Clicked on the wrong article to comment on! That’s taking “commented on the wrong thread to new levels”.

      @Alison, I’m reporting myself for definitely breaching the “stay on-topic” rule lol

  29. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

    Hinting is so common in workplaces but it’s so ineffective!

    What feels like an obvious hint to you (or like common sense) very often is baffling or not even noticeable to the other person.

    It’s very frustrating to be interrupted but why would you just hint? Especially as you oversee their work and you’re senior.

    Be clear. It’s far more professional and polite.

Comments are closed.