Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m not sure whether I’m being ungenerous or this really is rude; hopefully you can help!
I’ve been with my firm for a long time; longer than most of the staff. I have a ton of institutional knowledge, and am the in-office expert on several specialized processes. Between that and my love of teaching, I find myself giving a lot of little tutorials and helping to troubleshoot issues, and it’s generally really great!
I get interrupted. A lot. I know my explanations can get fairly detailed (out of necessity!), but I don’t think it’s right to interrupt someone whose day you’ve disrupted, and more often than not it’s to ask a question that I was actively addressing. It should be noted that these are people stopping by my desk, not emailing or calling with their questions.
The worst is when people interrupt me to “correct” me on something I know extremely well. I’ll explain the format something needs to be in, and they’ll interrupt with “Well actually, it needs to be an excel document” when I just said it needs to be a *.csv. Because it needs to be a *.csv. I had one guy do this on his first day, as I was explaining something to a neighboring employee!
I don’t know how to make this stop. There’s a huge expectation that I be friendly and polite, but I want nothing more than to tell them “You’re clearly not interested in learning. Please leave so I can work,” and forward them a link to a search engine (and possibly a muzzle). I try not to let these interactions spoil my day, but they sometimes get me so bent out of shape I cancel my evening plans so I can decompress angrily at home.
Possibly related: despite my experience level, I’m relatively young, and even younger-looking. I’m also a woman. My older coworkers seldom pull this nonsense, and neither do women my age. Men my age are not just the worst offenders; they’re they only offenders. At this point I kind of dread every new male hire under 40. I don’t want it to make this a sexism thing, but it really does seem like one.
What do I do to stop the interrupters?
Wishing they would fall in a Well, Actually
You’re being interrupted in two crucial ways: 1) Your workday is being interrupted by requests for training or clarification and 2) You’re being verbally interrupted by the people who interrupted you in the first place. Fortunately, there are a few strategies that come to mind that could make the interruptions less frequent and less annoying.
The Big Picture: In your shoes I might think about how valuable the institutional knowledge you have is to the company and how much of your job description involves being interruptible. Before the next performance review or meeting about your work with your bosses, it might be worth jotting down some notes about topics like:
- Is the stuff you know about how to do those processes written down somewhere? When was it last updated?
- Is there a budget or room in the schedule for you to develop training materials and process manuals to make sure it’s all written down and kept updated?
- Is all of this training and explaining part of the job description you were hired to do? What percentage of your time do you think you spend training new employees or reviewing procedures? Has your salary or job description evolved to include this work?
- Is there work you are supposed to be doing that gets sidelined when you need to train people?
- Is there a training department and staff who could take some of this off your shoulders or loop you in in a structured way?
Depending on what your notes end up looking like, they may lead to a script for your boss, something like:
“In the past year I’ve spent about 30% of my time on-boarding new hires and teaching [processes]. I think it’s an enjoyable and important part of my job, and I think it’s valuable to the company because of [reasons]. I’m bringing this up now because I would like this work recognized when it’s time for promotion and compensation.
I’d also like your support in [making this a more visible and consistent part of my job, with title and $ to match][supporting a collaboration with the Training Department to document & deliver this information, so I won’t be the only source of this information in the company][putting in place a better structure when people have requests for training, so my other work isn’t interrupted][giving me an office with a door so I can have more privacy and quiet to concentrate on my other work][whatever specific thing you want your manager to do that’s both good for the team and for you].”
Basically, if it what you do is important, it might be too important to happen in this ad hoc way, and you can show some initiative while you create a structure that will give you more control over the situation.
The Smaller, Quotidian Picture: How to deal with the day-to-day drop-ins while you work on your bigger plan?
To Fight The Daily Kind Of Interruptions, Make (& Enforce) “Office Hours.”
Here’s how to get started:
- For the next week, if you don’t already, start keeping track of how you use your time each day. Don’t prescribe or change anything at first, just observe & record.
- See if there’s a specific time or day when requests for explanations & interruptions tend to pick up.
- Also record if you are getting the same question or kinds of questions from more than one person.
After that week or few days of observing, try this:
- When you first get to work in the morning, look at your to-do list and block out time in the day for each thing you have to work on. For example let’s imagine a 9-5 workday at an imaginary company. Say you have a day that looks sort of like this:
- 9-9:15 – Organize the day (fun to cross a thing off right at the start)
- 9:30-10 – Emails, meeting prep, anything urgent
- 10 -11 am – Conference Call
- 11 – 11:30 – Answer emails (in between messing about about on the internet reading blogs & stuff)
- 11:30 am – 1 pm – Work on a specific deliverable, like a document or a specific bit of code or a presentation [whatever you make or do].
- 1 – 2 pm Lunch
- 2 – 2:30 – Back from lunch, catch up on emails (& world events)
- 2-4:30 – Keep working on [whatever you make or do].
- 4:30-5 – Back up your work, send anything that needs to go out by day’s end, let your team know where things are, get organized for tomorrow.
- In your daily schedule, is there a good time (or at least a better time) to answer questions or train people on stuff? Carve those times out (draw a box around them, add gold stars, whatever, only you are looking at this right now) as your Office Hours. Those are the times where you can best respond to emailed requests for information or make some time to talk somebody through a process.
- Start re-directing people who drop by to email you their questions and use the times to set their expectations for when you’ll answer:
- “Hey Tad, can you email me your question? I’ll take a look and let you know what’s up by 2:30 today.”
- “Biff, happy to help, but I’m in the middle of something right now, send me an email?”
- “Greg, send me an email now and I’ll come find you after lunch if we need to go over it together.
- Over time, reset their expectations (and your expectations, which might be even harder) that it’s somehow “easier” if you just stop and cater to them immediately.
People may get impatient when you start doing this. They don’t want to do the work of composing an email and defining their question, they want you to “just fix it.” But they can survive not having everything they want when they want it. If you’re consistent and you follow up well, and you make reasonable exceptions for urgent/deadline situations, they will adjust. They will look up the answer. They will a ask someone else. They will email you, and if you don’t answer immediately, they will take a walk around the block or work on something else until you get back to them.
If you think it will cause real friction, or if for whatever reason you think it’s a good idea to loop your boss in, say: “Hey, I noticed I was spending a ton of time every day walking people through processes, I’m trying to channel those requests a little better so I can focus on [urgent stuff][your boss’s priorities].”
You aren’t doing anything wrong or mean or rude if you do this! You’re still gonna help people out, and you’re still gonna be friendly and helpful when you do, you’re just going to redirect the requests slightly so that you can:
- Prioritize – Is their stuff more urgent than the other stuff you’re working on? Maybe Trey’s question can wait until you meet your own deadlines that day.
- Document – How many questions *are* you getting in a day? A week? A month?
- Document, Part 2: Could the email you sent to Chad last week also answer the issue for Bryan, Ryan, Ross, and Chase this week? Are those emails and documents you send in response to their questions the seeds of documentation and training materials to use in the future (or when you take a vacation)(or get a better job someday).
- Categorize & Strategize – “Hey team, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how to export the TPS reports properly as a .csv this week. Anyone who needs a quick review, meet me in the conference room at 3:00 today and we’ll spend 15 minutes on it. BYO caffeine.”
Methods For Thwarting The Manterruptions*
- Assume good faith…the first time. “Did you mean to interrupt me?” “I’m sure you didn’t mean to interrupt me, but…”
- Call it out. “Hey, you asked me this question – can you let me finish the sentence?“
- Spell it out. Wait until they stop, or, interrupt them right back. “Hey, I realize this is complex and detailed. Why don’t you email me and I’ll send you the step-by-step.”
- Spell it out & call it out…for repeat offenders. “Hey, I don’t think you realize this, but you keep asking me questions and then interrupting me when I try to answer them. What’s going on with that?”
- Tap out. Jared comes to ask you a question and Jesse “Well Actually” jumps in like the big goddamn hero of work procedures? Harness his manthusiasm! “Thanks, Jesse why don’t you walk Jared through it!” Then, if possible, throw your headphones back on or go get a glass of water from the kitchen and leave them to it.
- Wait them out. When Chaz and Jaxx interrupt you, stop engaging. Turn back to whatever you were doing before they interrupted you, or, stare at them and make a wicked awkward pause that gives them the opportunity to realize they interrupted you…again. Make them be the ones to say, “Whoa, sorry, I interrupted you. Please continue.“
None of these strategies are mean or rude or unprofessional. People can and will adjust, so, try them out and see if it gets better.
*Alternate Theories Of The Crime & Moderation Notes:
“Women interrupt people, too!” Yep! White women interrupt women of color. Older women interrupt younger women. Richer women interrupt those they perceive as poorer women. Also it is factually true that men interrupt women more than they interrupt each other and they do it way more than women interrupt men. The Letter Writer said this was the case where she works and she thinks gender is a factor in the interactions, and the research bears it out. Want some examples? 1 Even female Supreme Court justices get interrupted all the damb time 2 Seven Studies That Prove Mansplaining Exists. In conclusion: People interrupt people when they think they have more power and status and can get away with it. Gendered and other power-based interruptions are rude and oppressive and we all need to be more aware of it and do our best to nip those tendencies in themselves. Failing to name what it is out of a sense of false equivalency doesn’t solve the problem.
“But sometimes I interrupt people and I can’t always help it” Hello, my fellow enthusiastic ADHD-fast-flowing-ideas-sort-of-people! This isn’t a post specifically about us! We interrupt people sometimes! We also recognize that interrupting can be really annoying, and we work on not doing it to people so much! If someone in our workplace tried to get us to stop interrupting so much, that would be cool, right? Ergo, if you want to talk about this specific kind of interrupting, the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com might be a good place for that.
“What if the problem is that the LW talks a lot or too slowly or includes a lot of irrelevant information and her coworkers are just trying to get to the point?”
Well, her coworkers could email her then?
With all sincerity, I say this from painful & valuable personal experience as the hybrid of A Person Who Likes Explaining Stuff In Detail & TANGENT MAN, TANGENT MAN, DIGRESSES WHENEVER A TANGENT CAN:
If you find you get interrupted all the time, especially in conversations with peers (age group peers, gender peers, same level at work peers & other situations where a gender or power imbalance is not an identifiable factor), and it’s happening with a lot of different people and not just that one or two really talkative friends you have, I think it’s worth a gentle look at your own communication style.
Are you Treebeard, telling people about the whole history of the forest when they asked for one tree? Are your stories “all middle“? Are you dominating conversations when it comes to your favorite topic? Are you over-justifying because you grew up in a house where “No thanks” wasn’t allowed so you include 99 reasons along with every need or preference? If so, it doesn’t mean you’re an awful boring person and people secretly hate you! Or that you need to change your whole personality! I am all of these sort of people sometimes and I manage to be an okay amount of likeable. If this sounds like you, too, try to consider that interruptions can serve as valuable feedback, reminding you to tighten up your explanations and pay a little more attention to give and take.
For the Letter Writer, you say you know “your explanations can get a little detailed sometimes.” If you want to test out if this is part of the problem, try asking the person asking the question “How much detail do you need?” before you launch in.