managing a chatty employee when you need shorter answers

A reader writes:

I have a question about how to handle an employee who I now oversee. This person has been with the company for 15 years and is very nice, but also very defensive. She is also a talker. If I ask her a question about something work-related, which I need to do several times a day, it turns into a rambling answer complete with examples and anecdotes.

Is there a handy phrase that you have in your toolbox that works as a polite way of saying “OK, great, thanks, got it, get back to work now!” without making her feel like she is getting a brush-off?

Well, there are ways to address it in the moment, but you also should probably have a bigger-picture discussion with her about it.

In the moment, you can often preemptively head off long, rambling responses by saying, “I just have a minute, but can you tell me briefly what’s going on with XYZ?” Or, “Really briefly, what’s the status of XYZ?” Or, “Give me the one-minute version of where we are with XYZ.”

If she processes those signals, that might decrease a lot of this. If it doesn’t, you can also stop her mid-ramble by saying something like, “Okay, so it sounds like ABC? Great, thank you.” Or, “Sorry to cut you off, but I want to make sure we have time to talk about X.” Or, “Sorry to cut you off, but I’ve just got a second here. This is great info on ABC and just what I needed. Thanks!”

But if this is an ingrained habit in her, you’ll probably need to have a bigger-picture conversation about the problem anyway.

And you really should have that bigger-picture conversation, because this is something that’s impacting her effectiveness, and getting in the way of your ability to have effective conversations with her. And if I had to bet, it’s also probably making you and others avoid asking her anything unless it’s absolutely necessary, because that’s a common response when people know they’re likely to get sucked into a far-longer-than-needed conversation. And while I know you want to be kind, as her manager you’re actually doing her a disservice by not talking to her about how to communicate more effectively.

You could say something like this: “Jane, I want to talk to you about something that I think will help you be more effective at your job. I’ve noticed that when I ask you work questions, you’re very thorough — you always give me a lot of information, which is great in some situations, but often I really just need a quick answer. I want to make sure that I can get info quickly from you, and that you’re not spending a lot of time or energy giving me more context than I need. I also trust you to be handling the details fine on your own, so I usually don’t need them. In general, assume that I’m usually looking for the quick summary on something, and that I’ll always let you know if I need more information.”

You mentioned that she’s defensive, so let’s also talk about how to handle that if it happens. Frankly, defensiveness is something of a performance issue if it prevents her from hearing (and people from giving) feedback. So I’d address it forthrightly if it happens (here or any other time) — kindly, of course, but forthrightly. For instance: “I’ve noticed that you seem upset when we talk about things you could do differently in your job. It makes it difficult for me to give you feedback. Is there a different way you’d like me to handle these conversations?” … And if that’s met with defensiveness too, then follow it with, “What’s happening right now is an example of what concerns me. I know you’re upset so let’s not continue this right now, but let’s plan to revisit this in a day or two and talk about the best way for us to resolve this so that we can have these conversations more easily.” (And here are some tips on dealing with defensive colleagues in general.)

But overall, the way to think of this is that being able to communicate effectively and concisely is a skill that’s important in her job, and it’s something you can address and ask her to work on just like anything else.

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