You're sitting with a group of co-workers talking shop. But instead of talking about work, you're listening to one of your co-workers tell yet another long-winded story.
This one is about her uncle's cousin in Iowa who has a daughter starting college on full scholarship but she can't move into her dorm until the 10th because there was a water main break on campus and she still has to buy her books and she's going to miss her cat and I did mention what the mechanic said when she took her car in for a tune-up? It turned out her car had a problem with its...
I'll stop here, because it just keeps going. And going. And going. You've never met this co-worker's uncle's cousin's child and you never will, yet now you know all about her and it has absolutely no relation to the conversation at hand. Any effort to guide this loquacious employee back to the main topic is fruitless.
Unfortunately, you and your workmates have been ensnared in the trap of a compulsive talker, who rambles on and on and doesn't seem to notice how everyone at the table is fidgeting, looking down, looking away, not listening anymore, and eventually getting up and leaving. Good conversation involves give and take but compulsive talkers are all take and no give. They talk while you listen. You might get a bored "hmmm" or "oh, wow" in edgewise, but that's about it. Compulsive talkers want your attention. In fact, they demand it. If only the office printer could talk.
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If you work with a compulsive talker, then you're used to holding your thoughts on a wide range of topics. Whenever you see this employee walking across the parking lot, you run in the other direction so you don't get pulled into his or her verbal black hole from which no light escapes and neither do you.
What is going on with these employees? Research finds compulsive talking is a compulsive behavior, which seems obvious when you're in the presence of these people. Compulsive talkers can suffer from anxiety disorders, low self esteem or on the other end of the spectrum, narcissism. Despite their animated exteriors, these Chatty Cathies tend to be unhappy. The term Communication Addiction Disorder (C.A.D.) has been invented to describe these individuals, and one enterprising researcher has even created a talkaholic scale that over-talkers can use to determine the extent of their problem. Many compulsive talkers don't think they have a problem, however, which presents an even bigger problem in the workplace. How do you keep things on track with this co-worker and keep from losing your mind?
Learning artfully, and skillfully, how to interrupt the compulsive talker is the key to both survival and productivity. Interrupting others tends to be a learned skill for most of us, however, since we've been taught from an early age to listen until the other person is finished talking. We learned that interrupting people is rude, and so we don't know how to interject ourselves effectively as adults in the face of someone else's word salad. But if you don't learn to interrupt the compulsive talker, you'll stand there all day.
Start setting some boundaries. If you're on the phone with one of these Chatty Cathies, say you have to take another call in a few minutes. Then politely excuse yourself when time is up. I read about one worker who has gone as far as to keep a toy phone in her office and makes it go "brrrng, brrrng" whenever time is up -- a great way to inject some humor into an otherwise maddening situation.
If you're meeting face to face with a compulsive talker, get used to saying, "Sorry to interrupt you, but I've got to go now" or "We'd better start talking about the project now, the deadline is creeping up fast." Interrupting can feel daunting to very reserved, polite people, who not surprisingly tend to be a favorite target of the compulsive talker. Practice your verbal getaway in front of a mirror if you must.
Learn to lead these co-workers more quickly to a conclusion, too. As one article points out, you can say, "I don't need all the details; just give me the headlines." In other words, just get to the point already. This way, you get the abridged version if you're lucky. The compulsive talker might launch right back into a Tolstoy-length segue after a few seconds, so be ready to hold your ground and guide him or her back on track. Give the person a minute or two to wrap it up and then excuse yourself.
Some workplaces have developed "buddy systems" where co-workers "rescue" each other from conversations with a compulsive talker. If employees see their work mate being cornered in unending conversation, someone interrupts to say that so-and-so needs to speak with them, stat. This strategy can be effective, although it doesn't deal directly with the problem.
If the compulsive talker in your workplace is your direct manager or CEO, then I am so sorry. I really don't know what to say (no pun intended) other than good luck and hang in there. You must be a very good listener.