You’re on a Zoom call or gathered around the conference table and, once again, that one particular colleague interjects with a rambling, self-important monologue that dominates the conversation. Despite everyone’s best efforts to keep the discussion on track, this person gradually consumes the proceedings, time and again, subjecting everyone to their meandering stream of consciousness, which (as usual) is not especially groundbreaking.
This is a classic example of the compulsive talker—a person who lacks the ability to control what they say and when they say it. Dealing with one such person in the workplace can present a sticky dilemma—especially when you’re the one who has to tell them to pipe down.
What is compulsive talking?
A more colloquial and crude definition is someone who doesn’t know how to shut up, constantly unleashes an avalanche of verbal diarrhea, and otherwise has no capacity to read the room. To be sure, there is a scientific term for this kind of malady: “talkaholic,” which was coined by psychologists James C. McCroskey and Virginia P. Richmond in 1995. There’s even a diagnostic test to evaluate where on the talkaholic scale one might fall, although participation in such a scheme requires at least some semblance of self-awareness—which is usually in fleeting supply for most over-talkers.
If we’re talking about compulsive talkers in the workplace, there are several identifying characteristics that will be familiar to anyone who’s had to endure their unrelenting penchant for gab. Psychologists Shoba Sreenivasan and Linda E. Weinberger wrote for Psychology Today last year about some of the hallmark traits of a compulsive talker in the workplace, according to a 2006 study.
They noted the following behaviors:
- Ignoring verbal and non-verbal cues of their co-workers to stop talking.
- Non-stop monologues/dominating conversations.
- Repeating the same stories to the same colleagues.
- Lack of interest in work topics, or coworkers’ interests.
This can be an extremely vexing problem to confront, especially when it’s coming from someone beneath you in the workplace hierarchy, who tends to dominate discussions in defiance of their actual job responsibilities.
How to deal with a compulsive talker at work
Workplace advice columnist Alison Greene recently did her best to advise someone in the unenviable position of dealing with a talkaholic who dominates team meetings, without fail, every time they occur. Although Greene is a master of work-related advice, she couldn’t convey much that the beleaguered manager hadn’t already tried.
However, the manager’s attempts to reign in her talkaholic employee are an excellent example of what you should do, if you’re ever in that position. Here, then, are a few ways to tell a compulsive talker to stop talking unless it’s actually necessary or helpful.
Be candid and direct
If you’ve done your best to be nice and indulge your talkaholic co-worker, you can then move on to being candid and direct. Tell them that they’re not to speak in group settings unless they’re being directly spoken to in order to keep the meeting on track. Tell them why, exactly, their verbal onslaught negatively affects things.
Shift the conversation away from them
Compulsive talkers tend to verbally wander, leading conversations astray. What you can do is grab the reigns by addressing them directly, and demonstrably shifting the conversational gears. A simple, “Josh, let’s pause there; I think we’re getting off topic—let’s get back to that discussion on invoices…” should be enough to strongly hint that they’re wandered too far.
It might be harsh, but the reality is, some compulsive talkers really have no restraint. Maybe make a mandatory muted microphone policy if you’re on a video call, or impose some other kind of structure wherein a few people can lead the meeting, and then open it up for broader discussion. This will help ensure you have time to address the most important points before they are given the opportunity lead you off topic.
Sometimes, talkaholics won’t quit because they’re masking some deeper, underlying issue or insecurity. If you think this might be the case, try sitting down with them and ask if there’s anything going on that might be affecting their behavior at work. Being given the opportunity to reflect about changes in their behavior may be the nudge they need to start reining in the chattiness.
Of course, this all might fail you, in which case more severe disciplinary actions might be necessary. Hopefully, though, it won’t come to that.