All posts by Joseph Grenny

Crucial Conversations QA

My Coworker Does This Annoying Little Thing . . .

Dear Joseph,

Our offices look soundproof. But they are not. Even with the doors closed you can hear almost everything above a whisper from the adjacent office. My coworker in the office next door hums and sings very loudly. I put headphones on to try to cover it with my own music, but I can still hear her singing over it. No one else seems to hear it or be bothered by it, but it’s becoming really distracting for me at work. I’m not sure how to approach her without sounding rude and embarrassing her. I could leave my office to work in common areas instead, but I feel I should be able to use my office, too. How can I let her know that her humming/singing is disrupting my work without hurting her feelings or our work relationship?

Distracted by Singing

Dear Distracted,

I’ve got two options for you to consider.

First, see if you can change your reaction to the singing without lowering the volume.

When my son was little, he had a knuckle cracking habit. When I would drive him somewhere, he would sit in the back seat crunching his cartilage over and over and over . . . and over. It drove me nuts. It was loud. It was repetitive. And it seemed out of control. He would do it in other circumstances as well where I was certain it was annoying others. I decided this needed to stop. So, I made a campaign out of it. And in the end, I lost. Don’t get me wrong, the knuckle cracking stopped. But I lost in two other ways. First, I lost because I weakened my relationship with my son in order to get what I wanted. And second, I lost because I reinforced a false belief in my mind that my emotions were his responsibility. Let me elaborate.

First, read the four italicized sentences in the previous paragraph again. Notice the assumption woven throughout each of them. First, I allege that he was driving me nuts. Second, I exaggerate the volume. Third, I place a value judgment on him (“he’s out of control”). And finally, I make it a moral crusade (“he is annoying others”). Others could sit in the car and feel fine with the muffled crunching. But to me it was intolerable. Why? Some people have more audio sensitivity than others. I suspect that was part of it. But an even larger piece was what I was doing to myself. I was amplifying a minor inconvenience and turning it into a major hardship. By using my parental power to extinguish his behavior, I failed to solve the real problem: my exaggerated stories. This set me up to solve the wrong problem over and over in my relationship with him and others of our children. Oh, to have those years back.

So, option one is to examine whether the story you are running in your head is cranking the volume on the humming/singing. One way to test this theory is to see if there are other areas of your life where your reaction to minor behaviors is similarly out of proportion to that of others’. If so, this could be a terrific opportunity to learn to deescalate your story rather than confront your melodious colleague.

Second, it’s also possible to share the concern with your neighbor in an appropriate way. The best way to do it is to make it about you rather than her. Start with, “I’d like to bring something to your attention that you’re likely unaware of. The walls between our offices don’t dampen sound much. You enjoy singing and humming. I seem to get distracted easily by that kind of sound. It’s my problem, not yours. If you were even able to drop it just a couple of decibels it would make it easier for me to concentrate sometimes. I was reluctant to ask this because it is truly my problem that I react to sound as much as I do. So please don’t get self-conscious. You have every right to enjoy your music. Just wanted to let you know in case there’s an easy way to lower it a little.”

Having had the conversation, it’s important that you follow up in subsequent days with kindness to ensure it doesn’t get weird. Many people feel self-conscious after such a conversation and begin to withdraw and resent those who share feedback. You can lessen the probability of it by small gestures of kindness, or even by checking back in to ask, “Did I make it weird?” and “Please don’t stop humming completely on my account.” If others feel defensive, they can be tempted to turn you into a villain for making your request. Behaving in ways that conflict with that nascent story can nip it in the bud.

Best wishes,