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You are having a zoom conversation or are gathered around the conference table, and once again a certain colleague interferes with a rambling, self-important monologue that dominates the conversation. Despite all efforts to keep the discussion going, this person gradually consumes what is happening, over and over, submitting everyone to their meandering stream of consciousness, which (as usual) is not particularly groundbreaking.

This is a classic example of compulsive public speaking – a person unable to control what they are saying and when they are saying it. Dealing with such a person in the workplace can be a difficult dilemma – especially when you are the one who has to tell them to get in touch.

What is compulsive speaking?

A more slang and crude definition is someone who can’t shut up, constantly causing an avalanche of verbal diarrhea, and is otherwise unable to read the room. Certainly there is a scientific term for this type of illness: “Talkaholic”, which was coined in 1995 by the psychologists James C. McCroskey and Virginia P. Richmond even a diagnostic test to gauge where you might fall on the talkaholic scale, although participating in such a system requires at least some semblance of self-esteem – which for most over-talkers is usually only fleeting.

When we talk about compulsive speaking in the workplace, there are several distinguishing features that will be familiar to anyone who has endured their relentless fondness for gibberish. Psychologists Shoba Sreenivasan and Linda E. Weinberger wrote for Psychology today last year about some of the hallmarks of a compulsive speaker in the workplace, so a study from 2006.

They observed the following behaviors:

  • Ignoring verbal and non-verbal cues from colleagues to stop speaking.
  • Non-stop monologues / dominant conversations.
  • Repeat the same stories with the same colleagues.
  • Lack of interest in work topics or interests of colleagues.

This can be an extremely annoying problem, especially when it comes from someone among you in the workplace hierarchy who tends to dominate discussions despite defying their actual job responsibilities.

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How to deal with a compulsive speaker at work

Alison Greene, workplace counseling columnist, recently did her best to advise someone in the unenviable position dealing with a talkaholic who dominates team meetings every time they occur. While Greene is a master at work-related advice, there wasn’t much she could do that the ailing manager hadn’t tried.

However, the manager’s attempts to control her talkative coworker are a great example of what you should be doing if you are ever in this position. So here are some ways to tell a compulsive speaker to stop speaking unless it’s really necessary or helpful.

Be honest and straightforward

If you’ve done your best to be nice and pamper your chatty coworker, then you can be sincere and direct. In group settings, tell them not to speak unless spoken to directly to keep the meeting on track. Tell them why their verbal attack is negatively affecting things.

Move the conversation away from them

Compulsive speakers tend to verbally digress and mislead conversations. What you can do is take the reins in hand by addressing them directly and demonstrably postponing the conversation. A simple “Josh, let’s take a break there; I think we’re digressing – let’s get back to the discussion of bills … ”should be enough to strongly suggest that you have wandered too far.

Impose rules

It may be harsh, but the reality is that some compulsive speakers really have no hold back. Perhaps make a mandatory microphone mute policy when you are on a video call, or create some other type of structure in which some people can host the meeting, then open it up for wider discussion. This will help ensure that you have time to address the key points before they have a chance to distract you from the topic.

Show compassion

Sometimes talkaholics won’t give up because they’re masking a deeper, underlying problem or uncertainty. If you think this might be the case, sit down with them and ask if anything is going on that might affect their behavior at work. The ability to think about changes in behavior can be the nudge they need to curb the talkativeness.

Of course, all of this can fail for you, in which case more severe disciplinary action may be required. Hopefully it won’t come to that.