Ask Ellie and Jill: Loud Talkers, Uncomfortable Conversations and a Book Recommendation

Posted on July 10, 2018

In the series, ELGL members can anonymously send their questions, difficulties or scenarios to and receive a response from the ghost writing response team. Your name, organization and other details will not be shared in the posting or subsequent response.

Dear Ellie & Jill,
There’s a long-tenured employee on my team whose voice naturally carries, and she frequently conducts conversations with a cube neighbor over the cube walls that are quite loud. A fellow employee (who is quiet and reserved in the workplace and never wants to be involved in drama) came to me, as manager, and said that he is incredibly annoyed and distracted by the noise. Later in the week, a brand-new employee also gently indicated annoyance at the volume situation. The seemingly simple solution is to politely request that the loud talker tone it down, but I know she is going to ask if someone complained–and even if I say No, employee will presume Yes. This is a relatively small work group, and the offended employee’s presumption will inevitably lead to informal queries among the group members (she’d never guess it was a fellow group member making the complaint, and inadvertently ask the complainers), and embarrass those making the complaint… Any tips?
Annoyed Manager

Dear Annoyed Manager,
These are the types of manager issues that make us proclaim, “Why can’t everybody just be a grown up?” Unfortunately, once you’re in the manager seat, you’ll see that folks will often come to you for help with interpersonal dramas that they should really be handling on their own.
To start with, it’s important to reinforce your role as manager with your team. As manager, your job is to allocate work, inspire innovation, provide coaching, etc. Not to “adult” for your team so that they don’t have to. With that in mind, our first response to the employee(s) who come to you to complain about the loud talker would be to ask, “Have you addressed this with her?” If/when they balk at that, you can coach them on how to talk with their coworker, rather than take responsibility for the issue. We’re guessing from your letter it might be too late for that approach this time, which leaves the uncomfortable conversation to you.
We are huge fans of workplace advice columnist Alison Green over at the Ask A Manager blog. She gets questions like this one all the time, which shows just how common it is to want to avoid having difficult conversations with folks.  In her recently published book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work (which we recommend highly) she outlines five key points for all types of uncomfortable work conversations, which we are copy/pasting from her promotional website because she summarizes them so much better than we ever could.

  1. Assume that most people are reasonable. Most people do want to know if they’re doing something that’s aggravating you or if you’re deeply unhappy about something. Most people won’t be upset that you initiated the conversation and you aren’t going to come across as a jerk to reasonable people. Of course, some people are truly difficult, but the majority of the time, speaking up will probably go better than you think it will.
  1. How you speak up is key. Your tone and the way you frame the conversation will play a huge part in determining the outcome. When you’re trying to resolve a conflict, aim to sound calm, matter of fact, and, collaborative. Think of the tone that you’d use if you were trying to solve a less charged work-related problem with a colleague, and in many cases your coworker will take her cues from you and respond in kind.
  1. Own the message. Sometimes people get tempted to borrow the authority of a group when delivering a difficult message, which leads them to say things like “you’re annoying everyone when you get so off-topic at meetings” or “none of us like having potlucks this often.” But even if others feel the same as you, framing things that way can alienate the person you’re talking to. It’s okay to just speak on behalf of yourself (“I’d rather not have potlucks so frequently”).
  1. Sometimes being self-deprecating can make things easier. For example, if you want to ask a touchy-feely coworker to stop hugging you, you could say, “Please stop hugging me”–but that might cast a chill on the relationship. You’ll likely cause less awkwardness if you instead say, “Hey, I’m not a hugger. I know you mean it warmly; I’m just not very touchy-feely.” Framing it as “it’s me, not you” can sometimes get you results with minimal awkwardness. And if it doesn’t work, you can always take a more serious approach. (Of course, this tactic makes sense in some situations and not in others. You needn’t pretend it’s your own idiosyncrasy that makes you not want to, say, hear racist comments.)
  1. Try to make things normal afterwards. After an awkward or difficult conversation, try to find an opportunity soon afterwards to have a normal conversation with the person about something else. That will reinforce that you’re not upset and should help to reset the dynamic between you. 

So for your loud talker, the best thing you can do (short of getting your team to handle it themselves) is to address the issue the next time you notice that she’s talking loudly. When this happens, walk over and say, “Hey, I don’t know if you realize how much your voice carries when you’re talking over the cubicles like this. It makes it difficult for me to concentrate. Could you try to keep it down?”
Addressing it in the moment yourself takes the he-said/she-said nonsense out of the equation with the added bonus of giving you the opportunity to model appropriate behavior for the rest of your team.
We hope this helps.
Your friends,
Ellie & Jill


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