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Career Q&A: Turn tables on talkative co-worker

Q: I'm having difficulty with the person who was recently assigned to be my mentor. "Mark" is supposed to help me learn procedures in the research lab where I work as a graduate assistant. Although we get along well, he tends to ask a lot of personal questions.

Every Monday, for example, Mark asks what I did over the weekend. If I mention eating out, he wants to talk about the restaurant. Whenever I wear something new, he asks where I bought it, then makes comments about the store. Sometimes his questions sound like lectures. For instance, he might say, "Do you know how much salt is in those chips?"

This makes me uncomfortable, but since Mark will be grading me on my lab assignment, I don't want to offend him. Do you have any advice?

A: While some people hate divulging personal information, others view their life as an open book and will happily share almost anything. If you and Mark are at opposite ends of this spectrum, you may have conflicting communication styles. His questions don't sound particularly intrusive or creepy, so he's probably just trying to make conversation.

To evade these inquiries without being rude, you need a conversational escape plan. One simple strategy is to provide a brief answer, then quickly change the subject. For example, when Mark asks what you did on the weekend, just smile and say, "Nothing very interesting." Then introduce a work-related topic before he has time for another question.

A friendlier way to shift the spotlight, though, is to start using questions yourself. On Monday morning, beat Mark to the punch by asking how his weekend went. When shopping or dining is mentioned, inquire about his preferences. Before long, you may discover that these one-way interrogations have become two-way conversations.

Defuse disagreement by remaining calm

Q: "Jerry" and I are jointly responsible for producing our company magazine. Last month, I missed the deadline for submitting an article by one day. When I told our editor about the delay, she said it would not be a problem. After I completed the article, I was shocked to find that Jerry had instructed her to publish the magazine without it.

When I sent Jerry an email questioning this decision, he responded with a very vindictive reply stating that I deserved to be left out because I missed the deadline. Now I'm afraid this conflict is about to get out of hand. Do you have any advice?

A: At this point, your own reaction will determine whether this disagreement heats up or cools down. Responding in kind will just escalate matters and possibly create an ongoing feud. To reduce the emotional temperature, you need to remain calm and professional.

Start by initiating an actual conversation, since email is never appropriate for resolving conflicts. Expressing irritation in writing only creates more hard feelings, which is exactly what happened here. If you and Jerry are in different locations, try using a wonderful invention called the telephone.

You should also consider why Jerry is so angry. Given his intense reaction, I can't help wondering whether you have a history of missed deadlines. If so, Jerry's frustration may have been building for quite a while. To keep the discussion productive, acknowledge the past, but focus on the future.

For example: "Although I was unhappy about my article being omitted, I realize that I was late. From now on, I'll try to do a better job of meeting deadlines. However, it also bothered me that the publication order was given without my knowledge. Going forward, could we agree to touch base before either one of us gives instructions to the editor?"

Of course, Jerry may point out that you also neglected to consult him before telling the editor to delay. If the two of you can agree to collaborate before giving orders, carrying out your shared responsibility will be much easier.

Career Q&A: Turn tables on talkative co-worker 04/09/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 4:41pm]

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