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Help! My Assistant Talks Too Much

Help! My Assistant Talks Too Much!We’ve talked about the chatty boss before, but Reader N has a slightly different question: how to deal when your assistant talks too much? Reader N wonders what she can say to discourage her chatty assistant:

What are some ways to end a conversation with people at work that work for you? I have a new assistant, who is fantastic at the job! But she is VERY long winded for the smallest things (e..g, dropping off a file) & ends up on very long tangents completely unrelated to work. I understand that part of her need to chat with me / be friendly with me has to do with me being the boss,but need to be able to get work done during the day. I want to keep things friendly as she is helpful.

We haven’t talked about this problem in far too long — I still remember a fellow lawyer who used to “pop in” my office for what became two hour gabfests in the middle of the day. (Funnily enough I haven’t heard from her since we stopped working together.) Here, the added dynamic of the chatty coworker being your subordinate makes things a bit more complicated from an etiquette standpoint, but not unworkable.  Obviously, you can just tell her sternly to “please let me do my work” or actually sit her down for some bigger conversation about her talkativeness being disruptive — and because you’re the boss, the direct approach is absolutely fine. Readers in our discussion of chatty coworkers suggested saying things such as “hey, now isn’t a good time to chat, but I’ll stop by later” — but if you don’t actually ever want to hear her 45 minute theory about Westworld, that may not work either. (Or, Westworld aside, maybe you just prefer to keep a healthy distance and not be friends with your subordinates.)  But: of course you still want to be friendly and have a good working relationship.  This may take us back to our discussion of whether women bosses should aim for being liked or respected, but here are my top tips for solving the problem of when an assistant talks too much in a non-direct, friendly way:

  • Schedule interactions with him* or her throughout the day. Instead of asking her to bring something in right away, ask for her to to “please have this ready for my review at 3” and then set aside a few minutes at 2:59 to go to her desk and review her work — that way you can end the conversion by walking away, as opposed to getting her out of your office. By scheduling things like this, you can also protect your most productive times (mornings, afternoons, the hour before you have to leave the office for the day, whatever) and prevent her from interrupting your flow.
  • If you need an immediate update during the day, let her know at the outset you’re crunched for time or only want a very brief update. “What’s the 2-minute update on the TPS report?” “I’m under deadline to get this to Trask; could you please bring File X?” and then if she starts going on a tangent, you can remind her with a smile that you’re under deadline and have to get this done.
  • Do the walk and talk. If she is in your office, encourage her to walk with you to the printer to pick something up — linger there for a few minutes and then end the conversation with a smile.
  • Uh huh her. I’ll admit I’ve done this one — it’s pretty passive aggressive but it works. Basically, if she comes in and starts going on a long tangent and you have work to do, just start doing your work and only give her about 20% of your attention. After the tenth or so “uh huh,” she should get the picture and hopefully wind it down on her own.
  • Remember to give her positive reinforcement for the things she’s doing well. You say she’s fantastic at her job — let her know that, and often! Telling people they’re appreciated and valued goes a long way towards keeping work relationships friendly and less awkward.

Readers, what are your best tips for how to deal when your assistant talks too much? Any go-to phrases you’ve found to be helpful?

Pictured: Fotolia / trioceanassistant talks too much

* Male assistants talk too much sometimes, too! Here we’re mostly using the feminine pronoun because Reader N’s question concerned a female assistant. 

my assistant talks too much - help!

Comments

  1. Senior Attorney :

    I can’t imagine a man agonizing over this.

    I am not at all shy about saying “Okay, I’m kicking you out now because I have to get this work done!” Say it with a smile, turn back to your work, no muss, no fuss. Repeat as needed.

    • nasty woman :

      On the other hand, with some exceptions, women associates usually don’t linger in their male bosses’/colleagues’ offices to chat. The fact that they don’t is because they expect men not to be interested in/tolerant of such things, whereas women are presumed to be amenable. Which is why when a woman says GTFO (nicely, natch) it’s perceived as b*tchy.

      Ask me how I know.

      Anyways, use the coffee cup trick for when you feel like you can’t just be direct like SA suggests. Have one. When someone is blocking your door, say you need coffee, get up, and they have to leave with you.

    • Never too many shoes... :

      Exactly this.

    • Yeah normally I hate it when people say “would a guy worry about this?” but in this case I think it’s warranted. Smile, say “hey, don’t mean to cut you off, but I need to get this out.”

    • I want to push back here on the idea that whether or not a man would worry about something is a good rubric for whether or not it is in fact a thing that should be worried about. This something I see a lot in advice for women in the workplace (on this blog and elsewhere), and I don’t agree that “What Would a Man Do/Think/Feel” should be anyone’s mantra.

      • Anonymous :

        +1. The higher degree of sensitivity to other people’s feelings that many women feel can be a burden at times, but it’s not a bad thing.

        • Aunt Jamesina :

          Yeah, I think the world might be a bit better if some men reflected on “what would a (stereotypical) woman do?”.

    • Esperanza :

      I agree that men do not agonize over this, but women– sadly– often have to. My line is “I’m so sorry I have to get on a conference call in X minutes. I need to prepare, can we catch up later?”. Works well on everybody and makes me look super busy. I have very little patience for prattling, so I try very hard to be diplomatic about it and avoid seeming bitchy or cold. Other good tricks include the aforementioned coffee fetching, bathroom breaking, as well as timers going off in your office, going down the hall to use the printer, and just shutting your door. Good luck!

    • Senior Attorney :

      Okay, I’ll push back on the pushback.

      Why do we have to tie ourselves in knots making up stories and getting coffee we don’t need when we can just open our mouths and politely say “Sorry, I can’t talk right now” like a man would?

      Although in general I think Aunt Jamesina has a good point…

      • I’m not saying that the solution isn’t what you suggested — which is to be straightforward about your need to get work done. But the _reason_ that’s the solution has nothing to do with “What Would a Man Do” or any other gender stereotype.

  2. “I’d love to hear more about that but have to make a phone call.”

    • Most male bosses are such a bore to me. They talk and talk when they really have nothing to say. I think they just want to think that they have pretty women like us interested in their tripe. We listen only because we are paid to listen and smile.

  3. Anon for this :

    I need so much advice on this topic. What do you do if your assistant is not only too chatty, but gets too personal with you, gives you ridiculous gifts (just too much, inappropriate, unnecessary when I give a gift card for the holidays and that’s it), and just generally annoys the **** out of you?? I am a fairly young attorney and she is older and I think is A. bored and B. feels a motherly inclination toward me.

    • What did she get you that was inappropriate?

      • Anon for this :

        I don’t want to out myself. but she has given me things that are either way too nice, or way too personal, or just really weird/uncomfortable.

    • Anonymous :

      There are so many worse things. When I was a young attorney with a middle-aged assistant, she was blatantly rude to me and basically wouldn’t do any of my work! I’d say just humor her.

      • Anon for this :

        I don’t know what you mean by humor her, but when I used to be nicer to her she would take up half my day, like the original post. Now I am more cold and rude (sadly) and as a result, I am more uncomfortable, and she feels the need to make up for it by giving me things and making really bizarre comments. (comments that would be actionable if she was a man & my superior)

    • Senior Attorney :

      “I should have said something about this sooner, but here goes: I appreciate the thought, but please do not give me any more gifts. It makes me uncomfortable and I’d rather just be friendly colleagues, okay?” Then if she tries again, say “I’m so sorry but as I said, I’m not able to accept any more gifts from you. Thank you so much for the thought.”

  4. With some people I’ve found this abates over time. The “talking a lot” is their way of trying to make a good first impression. However, I also think a polite but firm “I’d love to talk more, but I need to get this done” with a smile is the way to go. Most great employees are coachable, and you’ll be coaching her on how you want her to interact with you.

    Also: yes to what Senior Attorney said. No dude gives two effs about this.

  5. AHHHHH!!! After many frustrating phone calls, conflicting denial/approval letters, nasty-gramming the benefits department for providing incorrect information, and generally driving my provider crazy, my BAHA surgery/procedure has been approved by my insurance company!!

  6. I would address it as an overall issue first: “Ann, I’m glad you are friendly and that we get along well, but I’m finding that our work conversations end up being long and getting off-track. Can you help me keep things brief and focussed on work?”

    Then when things are overly chatty – “Whoops, I lost track of time. I’ve got to focus on task X now. Thanks!”

  7. This is pretty much my life story right now, EXCEPT the legal assistant is terrible performance-wise to boot. She has told me EVERYTHING and then some about her divorce, her husband’s divorce, her husband’s ex-wife, her husband’s ex-wife’s mom (this is not an exaggeration: the ex-wife’s mom is a hairdresser and “really bad at it”), and the list goes on. It got to the point where she would literally waste 2 hours of my day. I’m not her boss or supervisor (she works for a pool of attorneys and we have a separate manager) but I am still higher on the food chain than her, making it awkward. I finally just started saying “hey, I can’t talk now”. It worked like a charm. If only I could get her to actually be of some assistance work-wise now. But at least she isn’t slowing down the ship, even if she isn’t pulling her weight.

  8. Off topic but I love the color of the lipstick the model is wearing in the photos associated with this post. Long shot but does anyone know the exact color? More realistic question – can anyone recommend a similar color? I’m obsessed. Please and thank you.

  9. Any words of advice about an assistant that is on her cell phone talking to her family and friends for a couple of hours every day? I am at wit’s end.

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