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There is a manager (not my manager) who sits across from me and since we both have open cubicles I can easily see (if I turn) and hear what he is doing. Perhaps I should phrase it differently, it is difficult to not hear what he is talking about. At any rate, he has small meetings at his desk a semi-frequently which I get the privilege of have no choice in listening to. A few time I have overheard them talking about something I have a very good understanding of (such as our current migration to Git) which they are confused about and I just turned around in my chair and provided my input. It has been a kind of instinctual thing and they seem appreciative, but it occurs to me that this might be rude and intrusive. As I mentioned, I don't really have a choice in listening to these meetings, they are 2 feet from my desk and are not easily ignored. The manager and I are on good terms, if we weren't I would not be doing this.

So am I being impolite or helpful by interjecting in these meetings? What is best course of action? I really have no idea what the best option is here, I get the feeling I should bite my tongue and keep silent, but I feel bad by wasting other peoples time by not helping.

Additionally I can't move away from the meeting, I have a desktop computer and I am a software dev. I could ask him to hold his meetings in an actual meeting room, it would disturb me a lot less, but that seems unlikely to work since we don't have computers in most of the meeting rooms.

Ps. I know listening into meetings is bad to do, I'm not trying to (I'm also not asking if it is bad)... Additionally there is nothing sensitive covered in these meetings, he would find an actual meeting room for that.

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7 Answers 7

up vote 13 down vote accepted

This happened a lot at my previous job: mostly-open seating, fairly close quarters, and I sat near some in-demand people. When I overheard a conversation that I could contribute usefully to, I quickly ran down the following checklist:

  • Do I have time for this right now? (I am under no obligation to interject, after all.)

  • Do I have something to contribute that either is important or will save them work?

  • Do I think the individuals involved are receptive or at least neutral? (No sense trying to help the prickly guy who's just going to get grumpy over it.)

If the answer to all of these was "yes" I would move in their direction (which for me was a little more than turning my chair). Deciding to interrupt is half of the consideration; the other half is how you do it. You still want to give them the option to say "no thanks" easily. My approach was something like this: "I couldn't help overhearing. (Something about my knowledge -- I've been working on this, I was in that design discussion, I filed that bug, whatever.) Would you like my input?" This does a few things:

  • Reminds them that they're being noisy. (Sometimes they would then retire to a conference room.)

  • Gives them a way to evaluate my offer up front (what do I know that they care about).

  • Gives them an easy, diplomatic way to say either "yes" or "no".

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Ask the manager to give you standing permission to interject, and that should take care of whatever discomfort you are feeling. As long as your interventions are to the point and they enhance the discussion, you'll be fine.

The rule of thumb is:if they're discussing something that you can hear, then it's not confidential. Given the office layout with you just one desk away, if they want a confidential discussion, they'll take it elsewhere.

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Communication is a perennial problem at organisations, but usually the problem is too little communication. This is why open-plan offices are popular and managers take great pains to sit certain people together. Also, if people didn't want others joining conversations, they would use private meeting rooms in the first place. Therefore you should rest assured that most of the time you're being helpful, so don't worry about the times where you're possibly impolite, and trust that it's a net gain overall.

Having said that, there are better ways to join a conversation:

  • Let your presence be felt first (without interrupting). Stand up, physically move into the circle of conversation and face the centre. This lets people know that you are listening in and wish to join the conversation.
  • Observe body language and find a good chance to interject. Interrupting someone in the middle of a sentence is obviously not the best moment. If your input is welcome, you will feel it in the body language, or perhaps someone will explicitly ask for your input since they know you are present.
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So am I being impolite or helpful by interjecting in these meetings?

In general, yes - it's impolite to interject in meetings into which you haven't been invited.

If this is actually a meeting led by a manager (rather than an informal conversation, for example), then you should probably ask permission before deciding to join in.

What is best course of action?

Since you are on good terms with the manager in question, you should talk with him/her first.

You could say something like "When you meet at your desk like that, I can't help but overhear. In particular, when you talked about the migration to Git, I had some information that could help. Would you like me to jump in and join the conversation in those cases?"

The manager might then choose to invite you to the meetings, or invite you whenever your opinion is needed, or move the meetings to somewhere else so as to not disturb you.

Let your future actions be guided by this discussion.

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Jumping into overheard conversations (and jumping out again just as suddenly) is common in some places/cultures (New York, for example) and uncommon to the point of seeming intrusive/rude in others.

If this is happening frequently, ask the manager in question whether he'd be comfortable with you occasionally leaning over and saying "I couldn't help overhearing, and I know something about that; can I help clarify that point?"... or if he'd rather you held your comments until after the meeting, or if he should make a point of inviting you since you're interested and willing to contribute.

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I think most of the professionals have had this kind of situation in there carrier. From my viewport i would say that this situation have more than few aspects. You have to understand what exactly are you interrupting and how it would impact your and your manager work.

This can lead to several things.

  • Giving you nice few points in managers eyes for helping out
  • Take away some points for interrupting
  • Open up a few possabilities in future jobs, if some positions free up and managers remebers that you had good knowlage about this.
  • Close out some opportunities because manager rembers that you was rude and interupted

It really depends on actual situation.

I don't think it is translated as rude or inappropriate if you do it based on wanting to help out. And in your situation you actually helped and speeded up the process. From the other hand you easily can interrupt something for manager, imagine that he was in the meeting with some clients and wanted to shine about his knowledge, even if he struggles but get the things right in the end he gets points for it from client, if you interrupt you could throw some dirt on manager, because he does not have a clue what he is talking about.

So it really depends on situation. There comes the ability to read people and situation itself. No one can help you here, just trust on you instincts and think about positives and negatives that could come from you interruption

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The place I work does not have cubicles - we intentionally wanted to have open work space. While working, there are a lot of conversations that can be overheard by anyone. A few of the conversations which are not open happen inside meeting rooms. Overhearing all the conversations can be considered as interruptions in work. It might also give the notion that a person is interesting in others' conversations than his/her own work.

A few things that I follow -

  • Get wired - put on my ear piece, listen to instrumental music so that I can focus on work.
  • Politely ask the folks to keep their voice low during conversations.
  • If the conversation is interesting, then politely ask if I can join the meeting.
  • Since I work on a laptop, move to a different table or meeting room to work.
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Your answer does not address the actual question 'what to do when overhearing?' –  Jan Doggen Jul 31 at 13:43

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