Question: I sit next to a colleague who constantly makes comments to himself. At first I thought he was talking to me, so I’d look up and go to answer and then realise he was just muttering his thoughts aloud.
Is there anything I can say to make this stop without making our working relationship awkward?
Answer: It makes sense that you would want a colleague to stop distracting you while you’re trying to work. I mean, we all like a little diversion now and then, but only when it’s more fun than the task at hand.
How do I deal with a colleague that talks to themselves?
Having said that, after running your question by organisational and counselling psychologist Jasmine Sliger, I’ve changed my understanding of “self talk” and, while I think you should still certainly consider asking your co-worker to stop, I definitely wouldn’t ask them to stop all together.
I say that because the first thing Jasmine told me is that talking to yourself isn’t just “normal”, it’s also “healthy”.
“Talking out loud is part of our inner dialogue, it helps us organise our thoughts, plan things and regulate our emotions. And in some cases it can happen automatically,” Jasmine explains.
In fact, there’s been a lot of research conducted that suggests the well-worn notion that talking to yourself is “the first sign of madness” is not just outdated — “madness” was long ago replaced as a blanket description for complex mental illness — but at its essence basically fallacious.
That, of course, doesn’t mean people in a workplace should make noise whenever they like with no regard for others.
As Jasmine puts it, we work in a community and we need to be sensitive to everyone’s needs.
"It is important to tell the truth but do it with compassion and you do this by building rapport with colleagues,” she says.
“People who establish rapport can see that those around them actually feel more open to their suggestions because they feel that you have their basic best interests at heart.
“[It] may allow you to broach difficult subjects with more ease. It also helps you to enjoy good interpersonal relationships and helps to create a more harmonious environment at work.”
This ability to relate to others in a way that creates trust and understanding is an important skill.
When it comes time to mention this single-person discussion to your colleague, Jasmine suggests carefully considering the circumstances and position you’re both in and then raising the subject with empathy.
“Approach your talkative colleague with understanding and humour if the situation lends itself to this.”
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