Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Do You Work With A Compulsive Talker?

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.


  1. Excellent article. I work with one of these blathering, blabber mouths and its driving me to the brink of insanity. This woman tells thirty minute stories about her husbands doctors appointment then launches into a monologue about what she ate for lunch and how someone was rude and what she was wearing and pointless stories about her stupid relatives. Arghhhhh!

  2. I also work with one of these. She constantly takes over the office with her chatter. We have a very close work environment and if you say anything, she has a long story to tell and so on and on and on.

  3. I am a hair stylist and have a couple of compulsive talkers and I am trapped because of the whole one on one situation. It`s awful, They make me dread my day, and sprinkled with anxiety. Changing the subject, interrupting, and working as fast as I possibly can! Can`t be soon enough,

  4. I've lived with a compulsive talker for a couple of years until I couldn't stand it anymore. There is NO way to get them to stop without running away. I've worked with compulsive talkers and found most of them live alone at home and saved up all their talking for work. One person was bipolar and if he didn't take his meds, once he hit his manic stage, there was no stopping him. Unfortunately he did not pay any attention to his guest or care what they said or wanted. He just had to get through his shtick regardless, singing and telling jokes.

    After a lot of suspensions and meetings they placed him in the stockroom away from the public and he did better.

    We also have several relatives on both sides that cannot stop talking. Avoidance is your key weapon. If they are your guests, heaven forbid, opt for a short stay or a short lunch. As they are relatives, you are pretty much trapped. I do enjoy interrupting during a strategic breath and changing the subject as much as I can. If you have a partner to help you play tag team, all the better.

    Don't let them ruin your day. Don't listen, don't take them seriously, and think about something else pleasant. Make appropriate noises, they don't listen to you anyway or care what you think. If you are cutting their hair tune them out. We used to have the same music over and over again at the store. We could tune it out at will or else you would go mad if you didn't. Change their subject by asking a question if you get a chance and let them ramble. Imagine them naked or eaten by wolves slowly.

  5. I work with someone that is a compulsive talker. He has to monopolize every conversation. It is becoming increasingly irritating and other co workers with who we regularly lunch are commenting that his taking over of every lunch hour is an issue. As if the constant talking isn't annoying in itself, he always takes the stance that his opinion is the only one which counts and he is right while everyone else is wrong. He appears to enjoy being combative. I have just decided not to engage and no longer voice my opinion. This is my choice as I just cannot deal with the constant struggling that he makes every lunch hour.

  6. I work with one of these. Want to slip some Krazy Glue into her coffee. Good GAWD.

  7. Hey, it's always worth offering them some sticky toffee sweets!

  8. I work with one who is as sweet as a Georgia peach, but she not only talks a lot, but whines about every task she's asked to do. Then she goes from coworker to coworker to repeats the same story from beginning to end. Her stories are always detailed and whether you like it or not, you're going to hear every word of it. If you try to interject a closing point, she's totally not interested, but will talk right over you until she's satisfied. Sometimes when she's all done (and you're not not giving eye contact), she might say, 'oh I see you're busy', but don't count on it. Here's the icing on the cake: when she's really on a rant, she comes around your workstation and gets right up close, inches from your face to make sure you hear her every word. It drives us all insane! Occasionally, she's uber quiet. So we tip toe around hoping not to stir the hive (which is just as stressful). Our only reprieve is when she takes a vacation day and oh how we revel in the solitude! We all do care about her, and don't want to hurt her feelings, so we suffer in cowardly silence. Well... it feels good to vent.