Life is grand – but not for the coworker

Q: I work with someone who constantly talks about herself, her kids, and husband on a daily basis. She can easily take any conversation and rework it so that it relates to her. I love hearing about other people’s families, but when it is about how great and perfect they are, it becomes overwhelming.

I’ve tried to ignore her and start a new conversation with someone else, but she does not seem to get the hint. Other employees who have been at this job longer than me have grown accustomed to it, but I have been here for less than a year and wonder how I am going to continue working with her.

How can we politely tell her that we enjoy hearing stories on occasion, but not everyday? Furthermore, how can we suggest that people don’t want to listen about how perfect she thinks her life is?

A: This is a tough one especially since you have tried to gently move the conversations in a different direction. Some thoughts:
1. If she is talking excessively, this behavior probably does impact productivity. If her manager is a reasonable person, could you approach her manager and ask her manager to address your concern? This approach is probably best reserved for situations where her chattiness is excessive. However, if it isn’t excessive and it is more of a case of you being annoyed by the content of her conversations, you might have to adjust your expectations.
2. Have you ever thought of approaching her a bit more directly? There is a risk here and only you can determine if it is worth the risk. One way to approach her is: “Barbara, your family sounds great. Yet sometimes it is overwhelming to me to hear stories about your life everyday. I need to leave by 5 pm to catch my train so I need to be more focused on what is on my desk for the day. Do you mind if we catch up over lunch once in a while?”
3. Ear plugs or ear pods could work. Some years back, a fellow commuter had a habit of telling me all of his marital and financial woes during our early morning bus commute. I began to resent this commuter. I didn’t want to be burdened by his stories – especially so early in the morning. I started wearing my headphones, sometimes with no music on. My fellow commuter at first seemed offended but got the message. He found another commuter soon after I began wearing my headphones.
4. Lastly, you could join the others who have developed a tolerance for her stories. Honestly, it is difficult for someone to change a behavior like this so unless it is very disruptive, it may be best to learn to live with it.

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