My whole life it seems, people have come to me asking how to handle a delicate conversation. These days it’s often about the tricky conversations at work.
Over the years, I got good at finding words for these things, especially after I did some training in non-violent communication (how to say what you mean without saying it mean).
So when this question, below, came to me for my advice column, it was fun to share a few tips for how raising delicate things can be easier for us introverts.
I think you’ll recognize this exact workplace dilemma she raised: the chatty coworker. I think every introvert, including me, has had a chatty coworker struggle. You know, where you want to work in quiet but the person nearby just keeps chatting. Yes we can talk about it and get somewhere.
I sit right across from a coworker who frequently thinks out loud by talking to me whenever she feels like it. It might be helping her, but it sure isn’t helping me—it really slows down my productivity and ability to think for myself! I need more quiet in order to work.
I listen a little because I want to get along with my work neighbor, but sometimes I just turn away. Still, she is not getting the message. She talks and talks.
I want her to stop doing this so much, but I can’t think of a way to ask for what I need without coming off as rude or antisocial. I tend to shy away from rocking the boat, but I know it’s a problem for me.
~Shhhh in Seattle
Hmm, you’ve got quite the mismatch between your work style and your colleague’s work style. I feel for you. And I’ve been there too. Close quarters without enough quiet can be hard on us introverts.
I understand that you want to get your work done and you want to get along with your coworker. Both of those needs are important, and they seem contradictory to you right now. There is a way, however, to have some quiet and still be friendly.
Concentration Differences for Introverts and Extroverts
Many introverts find it tough to be productive if there isn’t enough quiet. Many extroverts, on the other hand, need to talk out loud in order to think clearly and be productive. No one is right or wrong—we’re just different.
That difference is what’s playing out with your coworker: your productivity needs are different from her productivity needs. Even though both your needs are totally normal and valid, that doesn’t mean they work well together. That’s why a conversation here is so necessary.
If you can ask to work from home sometimes, that’s great. But often that’s not so simple.
Tips for Delicate Conversations at Work and Beyond
You can say what you need in a way that feels kind to your coworker. People are likely to respond well to a kinder approach.
Here are some tips for initiating a productive and kind conversation on any topic, with specifics for this case:
- Picture the best in her.
Remind yourself of some things you like about your coworker. That positive energy will help you relax.
- Step into her shoes.
Imagine that she might feel confused seeing you turn away sometimes. Now you’re in an open-hearted place to begin a conversation that you’ll both feel good about.
- Get clear on your underlying needs.
I think your underlying need is to have quiet in order to focus on your work. When you’re clear on that specific need, and how much quiet time you want, you can bring it up with your coworker and find a solution together. People are much more open to helping solve a problem when they know the underlying need. If you go straight to a request, the other party will feel like they’re being told to change for no clear reason.
- Avoid blaming her.
Make sure you are claiming your need as your own, as opposed to saying she should change. There’s nothing wrong with your coworker—lots of other people might enjoy a chatty work environment. By framing this problem as your need, you avoid putting her on the defensive.
- “Sandwich” the hard stuff with the positive. It might be hard for her to hear that she has done something that isn’t working for you. To make it easier for both of you, sandwich the hard part with something positive on both sides of it. In other words, open with some kind of honest appreciation, and close with something positive.
- Ask about her needs too.
You’ll be able to create a solution together if she has a voice as well. I imagine she’ll more fully realize that she prefers to talk through her thoughts throughout her work day. (But it doesn’t have to be with you.)
- Find a solution together.
Now that you are both clear on what each person would like, an obvious solution will often arise. For instance, she might think of someone else she can talk to. Maybe desks could be moved so you sit somewhere quiet and she is near someone who enjoys talking more.
Here’s How It Might Sound
Put it all together, and here’s how it might sound when you first bring it up:
“I appreciate that you answer questions for me sometimes, and I’m happy to help you out too. To concentrate well on my work, I need long stretches of quiet. I would like to talk through this with you, including hearing what you need, and then let’s come up with a solution that works for both of us. Does that sound okay to you?”
If the conversation doesn’t help resolve things, you still have other options. You’re well within your rights to seek help from your manager. Maybe you could request a desk change or ask to work from home. More and more companies are starting to understand that many people need quiet in order to be productive.
I’ve heard from many people who have been surprised by how much their managers wanted to help find the best fit for their needs. After all, they want you to be productive.
I know there are some bosses who just don’t seem to care, and that’s when you can start a new fashion trend with a sparkly pair of headphones.
When I worked in a noisy cubicle environment, I eventually had to take the leap and get a new job. The environment was just too hard on my nerves. I bet negotiating your space will go more easily for you.
Readers, I’m sure some of you have dealt with the same issue. What has worked for you?
[An earlier version of this advice column originally appeared on Quiet Revolution and was syndicated on Huffington Post. Reprinted here with permission.]