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Situation is this: X and Y sit near my cubicle. X asks Y some question, which Y doesn't know an answer to, but together they spend quite some time talking on that.

I have heard their conversation, and I think I know the answer. Should I interrupt their conversation and tell them what I think? But this might look little weird as X didn't ask me for help. Again, it would also mean that I am not concentrating on my own work and listening to others' conversation. What should I do?

If I decide to help them, what are the different ways to say it?

Note: This question is slightly different than Should I help co-workers with their projects? in the sense that the situation here is somewhat different.

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9 Answers 9

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I'd usually consider a few questions before jumping into things:

  1. Is the question asking for a factual answer or an opinion? I can imagine colleagues discussing which sports team will win the big game just as easily as asking when did Windows 98 come out. The latter has a specific answer that can be found while the former is where one can get sucked into a conversation that goes nowhere since it is all speculation and opinion. There are lots of questions like, "Which is better, A or B?" that can cause all kinds of problems in office situations that are best avoided.

  2. Do I want to be known as the person that answers these kinds of questions? Assuming the answer is factual, then the next question is whether or not I want to become the person that will asked about this stuff. In some cases, I can accept this risk and in other cases, I'd rather pass this to somewhere else.

  3. How well am I prepared to defend my answer? This is another factor as sometimes someone may have a question where if you try to give an answer, there may be the response of, "How are you sure that is the answer?" that is how a can of worms can be opened at times.

Generally though, if the conversation is about something factual, I can accept being the expert on this subject and I am prepared to defend my answer, I would interrupt to see if they want my perspective. Sometimes this is OK and other times they could be in their own little world.

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This happens to me a lot -- open (noisy) seating, and I've been at the company a long time and worked on several projects. If it's convenient to me to do so (which it might not be, depending on what I'm doing right then), I usually walk over and say something like "I couldn't help overhearing -- you're having a problem with X? I think I can help with that if you like." Usually they say yes.

The offer to help, as opposed to just diving in, is important: this could be part of a much larger conversation (so I don't have the context I think I do), or they may prefer to solve it on their own, or even this may be a mentoring situation where the ask-ee is deliberately not answering (to teach the asker how to analyze a problem himself).

Do moderate the amount you do this, though -- nobody wants to feel like you're listening to everything he says. This happens to me a couple times a week on average, with different people.

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My answer would be YES. There is a concept of "... ask forgiveness later". My take on this would be the following:

  1. Offer help as soon as you register the two persons are struck.

  2. If the offer gets accepted, help. Make sure, you can help and do not distract your co-workers, get into endless discussions etc.

  3. Later, if you run into them, ask for feedback. Have you been helpful? How did they feel when offered help? Maybe ask each of them face to face and not both at once. You might receive a different answer from the individual.

You can adjust your behavior according to the feedback you gained to fit what your colleagues are expecting.

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A reason that many companies have gone to more open cubes or open plan seating is exactly so you can overhear questions and poke into conversations when it makes sense. Here, at least, and at my other jobs, that's been part of the office culture.

If you sit in a place with cubes that are very high, you can assume that the cubes are to allow some amount of privacy and should probably not insert yourself. If a seated person can see over the walls of the cube, they're open for a reason. It's to encourage collaboration and "ad-hoc" conversations between people. In other words, if you hear something that you feel you can add to, you should.

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I understand exactly what you are asking - it happens to me all the time:
You overhear a question that they are struggling with and you know the answer!

It really depends on your office culture but in most professional settings the answer is No.

Look at it this way - if they really get that stuck, you can bet they will try to find anyone they can to get the answer they need - they are not that helpless.

If nobody is asking you, best to stay out of it.

If you start answering questions you can get in over your head.

It can be a gateway to more distractions from your productivity and managers goals.

In most cases, at the end of the day your manager is grading you on how much of your work you got done - not how many questions you helped others with. Unless you can put it into a report and show how you helped reach company goals by answering their questions, don't do it - resist the temptation!

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12  
This answer reminds me of malicious compliance. If doing something would help your coworkers (and presumably your company), then the fact that it's not technically your job seems like a poor excuse. –  Brendan Long Oct 22 '12 at 19:45
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@BrendanLong Cleaning the toilet would also help the coworkers and the company, but don't let that interfere with your productivity and managers goals. –  emory Oct 22 '12 at 20:49
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@emory a better example would be seeing a toilet overflowing but not doing anything because "it's not my job" but resulting in a huge mess for the person whose job it is –  enderland Oct 22 '12 at 22:59
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You seem to be treating this as if the question was "Should I spend a lot of time helping coworkers?", but that's a much different question. In this case, the question is basically "I have the solution to a problem, should I share it just keep quiet?" They're not talking about a huge project, just a, "Hey guys, you should try X. It solves you problem by Y." In a couple seconds, you can help coworkers significantly. If you insist on only doing things that directly benefit you (as opposed to the indirect benefits of helping your company), then consider that it's useful for coworkers to like you. –  Brendan Long Oct 23 '12 at 0:31
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In my experience, helping your coworkers (when they need and want it) will always pay back in the long run, even if it takes a little bit of your own time. –  Ken Liu Oct 23 '12 at 2:33

This is a usual scenario in our office.

We are a group of 4 trainees seated alongside 3 seniors. we 4 trainees are really good friends . It is usual among us that 2 or 3 of us are involved in conflicting dicsussion. Its been 5 months for us and each time any of us had discussion and if the person sitting quite knows the answer doesnt hesitate much to interrupt the discussion to give their suggestion.

But on the other side, if any of our seniors have conversation, even if we know the answer we didn't interrupt them, as long as we are asked to.

So i would suggest you to interrupt the X and Y only if you have sound relations with them, otherwise you should wait for them to ask you to answer the topic. Else it will reflects your lack of focus on own work and eye on other's work.

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If the question strongly indicates that the inquirer is intent on re-inventing the wheel, and I'm confident that I know something that will save all concerned a lot of work later on, I usually offer to share that knowledge at the earliest polite opportunity.

If I don't think there's a single, obviously correct answer, I listen for a bit longer, to see if any details emerge that might narrow things down a bit. If I'm still not sure, but it sounds like something I might be able to help with, I tend to ask one or two questions first for clarification. Then I'm in a position where I can decide whether to offer an answer to the initial question, or excuse myself and return to my own work.

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If I hear a lot of discussion about a technical subject, two things happen:

  1. Obviously I get a little distracted.
  2. The answer, if I feel that I know it, starts spinning in my head which in turn makes me impatient and makes my work error-prone.

In order to resolve my own condition, so that I can get to work again, I ask them to explain the situation to me. If I make sure that I can answer, I tell them, everyone gets to work and I can concentrate again.

This has two benefits:

  1. It betters the working conditions, both making you favourable and silencing the crowd.
  2. It gives you a chance to exercise your problem solving skills.

I know that this sounds a bit misanthropic, bordering on egotism, but it is still for the better of everyone in the end.

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Interestingly from a cost perspective, how long are X and Y going to spend on the problem. Personally although some may say professionally it's perhaps best not to use your time solving other people's problems, and in particular because your not a manager. Being helpful is both part of being a good human being and promotes a flat hierarchy within the company, which works both ways, because one day you might be stuck or find yourself in a difficult situation.

What you don't want to promote in a company is everyone being a "keeper of the secrets". This is often difficult in companies with a high staff turnover - in that why bother investing time in someone who will leave a few months later?

In offering to help X and Y, perhaps when both have finished their conversation, talk to one of the two, as not to interrupt their conversation. Offer them a reasoned answer, then let X or Y stew on it. Talk to them at a later time (cross reference if talking to the 'possibly' uninformed one), referring to see what approach they took - if they didn't heed your advice, quietly drop trying to help them on this issue.

Interrupting both X and Y mid flow with "I KNOW!" could be difficult, in a sense that putting two people in the wrong, might offend (if their egotistical) or they might not understand what your implying. I'd choose the in-direct approach as previously stated.

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