Dear Dr. B,
I have a coworker who completely gets on my nerves. We work in cubicles so there is very little privacy. She talks on the phone like she’s on stage without a microphone: LOUD. She has a persistent cough that makes me jump. She also does this tapping thing like she’s playing drums with her pen on her desk. What the…?? And I have nothing against being sociable, but she has people hanging out at the edge of our shared cubicle wall all the time, laughing and joking about work- and non-work-related things. It’s so distracting!
What am I supposed to do? I’ll sound petty if I complain about her popularity, and no one else seems aggravated so she’ll end up hating just me for my honesty. I really need this job so I can’t risk losing it but if she doesn’t stop this behavior I’m going to lose my mind instead.
In Cubicle Hell
Dear In Cubicle Hell,
Cubicles were designed for cost savings and collaboration but they often produce the opposite. Productivity can be severely compromised (read: profit reduction) and cubicle mates can end up wanting to toss each other off the proverbial (and not-so-proverbial) roof. What’s an employee to do?
First, let’s have a little talk about control, shall we?
If you’ve ever attended one of my talks or read any of my books, you know that more than Janet Jackson even, I’m ALL about CONTROL. Who has it and who wants it.
Here’s a quick review:
You are in control of three things – your thoughts, your emotions, your actions.
Other people are in control of three things – THEIR thoughts, THEIR emotions, and THEIR actions.
So, to solve this problem, we need to get you to focus on what YOU can do to fix this, not what THEY can do to fix this.
I truly wish I had a magic wand that would make the annoyances, personality challenges, not to mention all the downright evil out there blissfully disappear, but it just ain’t possible. The only change that you can control is the change inside of YOU.
I know, I know, that’s a large, chalky pill to swallow. But it’s legit.
Now, in order for you to actually listen to a damn thing I’m about to say, I have to tell you some encouraging news first: If you’re in control of YOU you’ll be better positioned to INFLUENCE them. Influence is control “lite.” It’s as close to control as you’re ever going to get but it’s effective only when you’re in charge of YOU.
Ready to approach this from the vantage point of what YOU can control? AWESOME!
I heard that the issues you’re having with your coworker are:
She’s loud on the phone
She’s social (loud, distracting) with others
She coughs and taps (more noise).
Bottom line: She’s making noise above your level of tolerance. If I could interview you, I’d ask you if you’ve experienced this elsewhere in your life and what you’ve done to manage it. I’d also ask if this has gotten worse over time, either from her end (she’s gotten noisier) or yours (you’ve gotten more annoyed). I’d also inquire if you’re under a new level of stress at work or at home that might be bringing this to a head. So, ponder these questions because you might uncover something useful that could put more control options in your lap.
Here are some suggestions to address the noise issue:
Start using noise-canceling headphones. Be sure to alert people who might come by your cubicle that you’re doing this and set up a way for them to get your attention that isn’t verbal. Think hearing-impaired devices like lights, physical movement, etc.
Talk with her about your own volume. Tell her that you’ve noticed that you have gotten lackadaisical about the noise you’re making and you wanted to let her know that you’re working on it. Ask her to do the same so you two can make the environment better for everyone. See what I did there? I let YOU own the problem to reduce her defensiveness. If your spouse told you that you were fat, you’d be incensed. If instead he said how fat he was feeling and asked you to start a new food and fitness regimen with him to support your collective good health, you’d likely be a lot more amenable.
Practice meditation. Your stress level over the noise is most likely, in part, due to your focus on it and your overall stress level. When you’re stressed, the little things set you off. If you can reduce your own stress, you won’t get as irritated with the little things she’s doing. You’ve vilified her which makes every little thing she does sound like nails on a chalkboard (you’re welcome for that reference). Taking time to meditate, to relax, will allow the things she’s doing not to get you all riled up. Her pencil tapping is most likely stress on her part, so feel free to share with her your own calming practices. There’s even an app for that: Buddify, Calm, and Headspace rise to the top of the list of most recommended apps (for Android and iPhone).
Talking with your coworker. I know you wanted to avoid this but open, honest communication is really useful. She probably has zero clue that you’re frustrated with her. As a result, don’t lead with your irritation. Lead with talking about your stress and challenges focusing. Request her help in doing better with those things by creating fewer distractions for you. Let her know, gently, what those distractions are. Start with the biggest and easiest ones to correct: Loud talking on the phone and with visitors. Leave out the coughing and pencil tapping (could be hard to correct).
I hope this helps!