If you have ever worked in an open office or cube farm, there's a very good chance you've dealt with a noisy neighbor.
"Loud and talkative coworkers can be one of the most annoying distractions on earth — and, unfortunately, they're pretty common in today's workplace," says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job."
Most often, she explains, the problem is either that you feel the decibel level has exceeded your auditory tolerance, or the pitch feels like nails on a chalkboard. "Either way, the noise will seem to grow louder and more frequent, until it is all you can hear throughout the day. You'll find yourself fantasizing about wearing noise-canceling headphones or worse, using your smart phone to share a certain Black Eyed Peas' melody."
But neither of those are ideal solutions for quieting a loud coworker.
"Dealing with issues like this at work can be very awkward," explains Michael Kerr, an international business speaker and author of "You Can't Be Serious! Putting Humor to Work." "Most people want to avoid conflict, as it's natural to want to get along and be liked by all your colleagues and to not be seen as high maintenance or a whiner, so the tendency is to grit your teeth and put up with it."
Taylor says it's an especially stressful predicament because you don't want to appear rude or confrontational with your peers. "You strive to be an amicable team player, and no one can claim ownership to adjoining air space. Chances are you have to work with this person, and you just don't know what reaction you'll get."
But when you're dealing with a protracted situation that affects your livelihood and productivity — for instance, when your neighbor's voice carries into your client phone call, or distracts you from being able to compose an email — you know the line's been crossed and you must take action. "It's time to prepare for a diplomatic conversation and choose your words carefully," says Taylor.
She suggests taking your colleague to lunch or finding a neutral, quiet room or office to meet in. "Regardless of the venue, first discuss common interests inside and outside of work. Be kind and friendly."
Try something like: "Hey, I need your advice on something. I know it can be challenging working in such close quarters. Is there anything I can do to improve your work experience being that we work so close by each other? Do I tap my pen or slam my cabinet? You never know until you ask!"
"Then, await a response before bringing up the issue," says Taylor. "And when you do, say something along the lines of: 'I really appreciate your input; thank you. For me, it's sometimes difficult to concentrate, as I'm a bit sensitive to noise levels around me. I was wondering if you might have any suggestions.'"
She recommends that you offer a compromise if necessary, such as morning or afternoon times being more critical for you to have more quiet time. "Remember to thank your colleague for being open to listening to you. And ultimately circle back to a positive note, such as a common project or a topic of interest," Taylor says.
If that doesn't work — or you're not comfortable with having that conversation — here are some other suggestions:
Bring the issue up with the entire office so that no one feels singled out.
"Posting an informal survey of the top five office pet peeves on the lunchroom bulletin board, or raising the survey results in a meeting is a safe way to gently remind everyone of some basic office etiquette," says Kerr. "In fact, everyone working in an open office concept should talk openly about the challenges of working in that kind of environment and agree upon some basic guidelines to ensure everyone plays nice in the sandbox."
Designate an official quiet zone.
Use fun signs and simple reminders that certain areas are intended to be places where people can focus and work in peace, Kerr suggests. "You also need to ensure then that there are ample spaces where people can meet to have conversations."
Ask how you can be a better neighbor.
Compromise is usually the secret to conflict resolution, and this is no exception, says Taylor. "The golden rule is a two-way street. What if your cube neighbor dislikes your jacket hanging over the adjoining cube wall? What if you unwittingly slam your cube cabinet 20 times a day (even if you think the noise is drowned out by his thunderous voice)? Your best approach with a sensitive issue like this is to find out if there's anything you can do on your end. And ideally, your willingness to meet in the middle should be brought up early once the topic is on the table," she says.
Recognize that this can sometimes be an issue that separates out the introverts, who get their energy from quiet spaces, and the extroverts, who need to refuel their batteries with social interactions.
"Offering dedicated space and even times when the two different personality types can refuel in the manner best suited to them can help immensely," says Kerr.
Make use of headphones.
Again, this isn't a great permanent solution, but it can help. "You don't want to be seen as being rude, but proactively explaining to people that you work best when you block out all the background noise can smooth any ruffled feathers," says Kerr. "You may even implement a headphones etiquette rule, such as: Don't disturb or interrupt people wearing headphones unless it's absolutely critical."
Be sure that you're not over-reacting.
Have you done an objective reality check? Are you new to the environment and unaccustomed to the noise factor? "Make sure that the issue is not partially your own, such as noise sensitivity on your part or really needing your space," Taylor says. "You don't want to finally secure that coveted cube down the hall, only to find another 'nightmare of a neighbor.'"
Lead by example.
When someone is talking too loudly and you know it's upsetting the people around you, take the lead by saying, in a softer voice, "I want to hear what you have to say, but I don't want to disturb the people around us, so can we step into a conference room or maybe chat about this at a better time?"
If conversations among your colleagues are distracting you, it's okay to be frank and let them know, so long as you're polite. "Ask them if they wouldn't mind taking their conversation elsewhere," Kerr suggests. "Explaining that you have an important client call to make or a looming deadline that requires your full concentration will help make your request seem eminently reasonable."
Allow your colleague to save face.
No one likes to hear that they're a blabbermouth, Taylor explains. "When you approach your colleague, leave room for saving face. You can address the lack of sound-proof walls, poor acoustics in the area, your sensitivity to noise and/or the occasional need to rise above all the clutter by speaking loud to hear yourself think. Giving your coworkers an out helps soften the criticism; makes you appear more empathetic and reasonable; and makes you more persuasive."
In extreme cases of loud talkers, it may be necessary to take them aside and ask if they are aware of the volume of their voice.
This can be difficult and uncomfortable — but your colleague might not even be aware of the issue and may appreciate the fact that you're letting them know (especially if others in the office are affected).
If your colleague doesn't take it well, apologize and explain that it's not a personal attack or a comment on their character, says Kerr. "Reiterate that your primary concern is that you really need to focus on your work at that moment and so you think it's a reasonable request."
Taylor says if you realize your approach maybe came off as abrasive, say sorry and give it a second try. "Offer a compromise and ask if your colleague has any suggestions. If that fails as well, check to see if your fellow office mates share the same issue with discretion and tact. If so, you might be able to encourage one or more people to approach your neighbor. If all your colleagues who are close by seem (or say) they're unaffected, your case is probably weakened."
However, if you're the only one situated near the person, and they're unwilling to compromise, you may want to scope out other possible cube locations and then request a "relocation" from your boss. "Prepare your thoughts in advance; let your boss know you've already broached the subject with your colleague; and discuss the ramifications it has on your work. The downside of approaching your manager is possible fallout; your relationship with your neighbor and general work environment may become more strained. You'll have to weigh all sides."
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