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How to Tell a Chatty Co-Worker You Don’t Want to Talk

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OOne of the defining features of the modern workplace, for better or worse (probably worse), is that there’s no longer anywhere to hide: from the office gossip, eager to share their theories about who’s secretly sleeping with whom, from the chronic complainer, looking to vent their latest drama, or from the oversharer, who will force photo montages and long-winded vacation stories on anyone they can corner.

More than 70% of American offices are now open-plan designs, meaning they have low or no walls to keep a chatty colleague at bay. Not that anyone needs an accommodating physical space to talk your ear off: Workplace communication platforms like Slack and Gchat make it possible to bombard co-workers at any time of the day, no matter where they are or how many walls or doors stand between you. Anyone who has posted an “away” status knows how easily they’re ignored.

Some chatter is absolutely key to employee satisfaction, trust, and relationship-building. (Using Slack to send puppy photos and vent about office AC has absolutely helped turn strangers into friends.) But when taken too far, office chatter makes it impossible to focus on the whole point of being in the office — actually doing your work.

Of course, you can always just tell your chatty co-worker that you don’t want to talk. For many of us, though, that’s daunting: You don’t want to seem rude or offend people you care about (or the ones cutting your paychecks).

But before we dive into our scripts for how to shut down unwanted chitchat, it’s important to understand how those boundaries get blurred in the first place.

Step 1: Understand where your chatty co-worker is coming from

As information designer Liz Fosslien, co-author of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Feelings at Work, points out, most full-time workers are spending a minimum of 40 hours per week (and often much longer) in close proximity to their colleagues — that’s more time than most of us spend with our friends and family.

“It’s natural, then, that over time, we feel more comfortable around at least some co-workers [and] share more and more,” Fosslien says. And in an age of overwork and burnout, many find themselves bereft of friends outside work, and relying on colleagues for social sustenance.

There’s also the possibility that a co-worker is frustratingly talkative because the two of you simply have different standards for how you use your time, says organizational psychologist Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. “For example, someone who can stay at the office until the work is done might enjoy chatting and blowing off some steam during the day, whereas the person who needs to catch the commuter train might want to stay focused to get out the door on time,” Davey says.

Step 2: Casually set your boundaries

Getting inside your co-worker’s head might soften your annoyance a little, but it won’t entirely eliminate that knot of dread that forms in your stomach when you see them headed your way. And you’re well within your rights to be uncomfortable or frustrated by their chattiness (especially if it’s undermining your performance or is noticed by other officemates or even your boss). Left unresolved, these feelings can impact your work.

So it’s important to make your boundaries clear. And that, unfortunately, means using your words — no matter how sneaky you think you are, pretending to be on a call whenever they walk by isn’t exactly a sustainable strategy.

But that doesn’t mean you have to make a big deal out of the conversation. Harvard lecturer Doug Stone, author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, recommends starting off with a casual but direct approach: If you’re trying to shut down discussion of a certain topic, “You can say, ‘I tend to be fairly hesitant to talk about my romantic relationships at work. I know some people enjoy talking about that, and that’s fine. For me, I like to have a certain level of privacy.’”

Make sure, Stone adds, that you’re not coming across as judgmental, unless the conversation is truly inappropriate, or derogatory or offensive. “You’re just describing your own preferences,” says Stone. “If you want to, you can share why, but you don’t have to.”

Step 3: Emphasize your priorities and needs

If the issue isn’t the topic, but the amount of time the co-worker is talking to you, it’s still best to nip things in the bud as soon as the problem arises, rather than letting your annoyance silently fester. And that means not being too subtle: “Often, people who don’t conform to normal social boundaries are also the ones who don’t pick up cues,” Davey explains.

To get the message across effectively, it’s best to emphasize your needs, rather than appear to blame the other person. You don’t want them to hear you asking for space as passing judgment, or saying you never want to talk to them again. You may have heard of the term “I statements,” or statements that focus on your feelings over the other person’s actions. Now is a good time to speak in the first person.

“You can say something like, ‘I enjoy talking with you about this, but at the same time, I’ve been working to protect my time,’” says Stone.

Fosslien suggests a similar approach: “A great way to frame the problem is to make it about either a) your need for heads-down time to focus on and finish important work, or b) your need for more alone time,” she explains. “You might try saying something like, ‘I really enjoy talking with you, but I need to focus on this project/draft/whatever right now.’”

These lines are appropriate and direct, while also laid-back, which is key. The more serious or perturbed you appear, the more likely you’ll push your co-worker into a defensive stance, or assuming you dislike them. (Even if that’s true, you’d probably prefer not to assert that truth.) Ultimately, this shouldn’t be personal. It’s about your desire to get your work done.

Another suggestion from Fosslien: Set a time in the future when you’re likely to be better placed and more in the mood to chat. “You can offer an alternative time to talk by adding, ‘Maybe we can grab coffee together tomorrow morning?’” (This may seem obvious, but only offer up something like that if you’re actually willing to do it.) If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em — just do it on your terms.

Step 4: Escalate without guilt

Perseverance isn’t always a virtue. Unfortunately, some people are a bit relentless, and won’t tone it down even when you ask them to. In these situations, be increasingly direct. Your goal should always be to emphasize that you need to get your work done, and sometimes that means calling out how the other person is negatively influencing you.

Stone suggests this line of conversation: “First, you can say, ‘I hear that this feels important to you and I know you want to talk about it further. From my point of view, as I work to balance engaging this issue and also protecting my work time, it feels like we’ve covered what there is to cover. Are there things you feel like I’m not hearing or that you haven’t said?’”

If they continue repeating the same ideas or continuing a conversation that should’ve ended, you should draw a harder line, he advises: “You can say, ‘I know you want to keep talking about this. I feel like we’ve each said and done what there is to say and do, so I don’t want to talk about this topic any further.’”

“The key word here is ‘topic,’” he says, “as you’re setting the boundary at the topic, not the person.”

If the person truly just won’t stop, Davey suggests a tougher tact: “For example, you could say, ‘Bob, this is the third time you’re at my desk today. I need you to give me a couple of hours [of] uninterrupted time.’”

You may feel rude — but that’s okay. Difficult as it may be to change your perspective, advocating for yourself at work in a healthy way should never make you feel bad, Fosslien says. Nor should you feel like you need to excessively justify your request (“I just have a meeting soon, so I really need to focus”) or apologize (“I’m so sorry I’m like this.”)

“Just be kind but firm,” Fosslien says. “It’s absolutely okay to have needs, and to express them. If you’re worried about appearing anti-social, make it a point to attend group lunches a few times a week or really engage with others in larger meetings. Then you’ll feel less guilty taking the space you need at other times.”

While it might be uncomfortable, it might also feel cathartic: Finally, you can say — nicely! — what you’ve been thinking for weeks or even years.

Step 5: Set norms

Here’s where peer pressure can be your friend. When a group agrees to behave in a certain way, enforcing that behavior is far easier. Ultimately, your team’s goal should be establishing broadly supported norms around workplace chatter. Sometimes, this saves the chatterer’s feelings, too: The more the office culture keeps them in line, the less you (or anyone else) will have to do to push them away. And by respectfully asking your co-workers to let you focus, you’ll inspire others to do the same.

This was the case at Humu, where Fosslien works: “We make it a point to be observant and thoughtful in how we engage with our colleagues, and know that it is 1000% okay to tell a colleague that you can’t talk right now, and to schedule time later,” she says. “We had a conversation about this at an all-hands meeting in which everyone expressed support for and agreed to live by this norm.”

If you’re feeling broadly annoyed by excessive office chitchat, you’re probably not the only one, so be proactive and bring it up. Ask your manager in private whether you can organize a group chat about productivity, focus, and distraction in the office. Be sure to frame this inquiry around your desire to do the best possible work, without calling anyone out or tagging blame.

Ideally, asking for what you need to do your best work will make it easier for others to do the same — which makes the office more pleasant and productive for everyone.

Investor at NextView Ventures. Journalist. Thinking about gender, equality, and pugs. Formerly at Chief, Quartz, Slow, Bridgewater Associates, Middlebury.

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