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I am new and learning the system. When I ask this coworker whether he has time to talk about some questions I have, he always answers yes. Sometimes he clearly means it and we talk in-depth about my questions, almost always giving me the information I was looking for. But at other times he clearly doesn't actually have time. He says he's free to talk but then his answers are very short and very general, and he looks politely impatient to return to what he was doing.

The really hard part about this pattern is that when he doesn't really answer my questions because he's busy, it makes me feel like it would be awkward to approach him at a later time to ask pretty much exactly the same set of questions that weren't answered before. So now I've got unanswered questions that I feel I can't ask.

How can I ask "Do you have time to talk?" such that he feels like he can reply in the negative if he's busy? It seems he's not comfortable saying no, as if it's socially unacceptable. I don't feel that way and have no problem telling someone "I'm in the middle of something can you come back in ten minutes?" and I wish I could make him feel comfortable saying that too.

11

I usually balance my questions across the whole team. If I asked Mr. X yesterday, I ask Mr. Y today, and Mr. Z tomorrow.

If you are in a position where this coworker is the only one in the team, or the only source of info, then try to format your question in a way that you are helping him to help you. Evaluate your needs and ask for a specific period of time according to the issue you are asking about:

Can I use 5 mins of your time whenever you are free? It might take less than that and I really appreciate it.

Also, try to keep your request in text if possible, ex email or slack. This way, you do not get on top of his head while he was on his desk focusing on something else. This way, you are giving him space and time to answer your question and that is very useful in a busy team.

Other benefits of keeping the requests in a written format would be:

  • For your records. So if you forgot something you can get back to it anytime and/or if it turned out you were informed with any wrong info.
  • Cleaner and Clearer communication
2

Offer an alternative. Since he's uncomfortable saying no, make it a choice rather than yes/no.

Are you free for 5 minutes right now, or should I come back later, say, tomorrow morning around 10?

You'll have to try a few versions. Maybe it's better to include a specific time in the alternative, or maybe a simple "or should I come back later" is sufficient. Giving a specific time makes it obvious that you're serious about that option and not just saying it to be polite, while leaving it gives him the option to pick a time that suits them.

0

Try a form that openly allows your colleague to tell you that he's busy. Something like, "Are you in the middle of doing something? I need your help, but I can wait if you're doing something else". There is nothing wrong with giving them free way to saying no.

0

If these are team/project management related questions, have a regular standup meeting scheduled for that very purpose. If you need technical mentorship from him, set up a regular time for that as well to sit down at your computer with him.

If you have to ask if he has time, don't ask for "five minutes" and don't ask for "two minutes". In other words, don't use generic phrases to ask for time if you don't want generic unthinking answers.

Try to become as accurate as possible in your time estimates of how much time you need from him. Keep a log for your own benefit. Write the amount of time you thought your question was going to take vs. the amount of time your question actually took to answer.

This way, if you ask for 16 minutes, or if you ask or 30 seconds, and if you try to keep to that time even if he hasn't finished answering your question, your colleague will slowly become better at answering your "if you've got time"-related questions.

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I could see your colleague asking here: “How do I politely tell me colleague that I have no time to answer his questions”. There are times when trying to be polite is the rudest thing you can do, and that’s your colleagues problem.

Since your colleague can’t do it, you have to. When you notice that he doesn’t actually have time, tell him. “It looks like you would rather be somewhere else, so we better stop now. “ maybe he learns that way to be really polite and not say he’s got time when he hasn’t.

-1

The first thing to do is making sure what you're asking needs to be asked and that you can't just find it yourself within a decent amount of time.

You should be limiting the amount of times you're interrupting him by spreading the questions around and making a list of questions to ask.

Ping them on slack first or shoot an email marked low importance for him (unless this is a task blocker)

Ask questions that help you learn rather than just give you information.

Make sure you REALLY need to ask the question and can't find the information yourself elsewhere.

The biggest thing is just come out and tell him not to worry about being polite and to just tell you what's up. If he's busy let you know he's busy and tell you a time to come back. Take cues from his body language. If he looks like he's invested in his work right now, don't even interrupt. If he looks more relaxed or is browsing reddit, give him the old 'hey you'

While not work related, my neighbor is very much a talker. He works an overnight shift at the hospital and if I run into him on my way out of the apartment building I can get sucked into a 15 minutes conversation about photography or something. At first I was polite but I've since started speaking up if I don't feel like talking and telling him I just don't have the time to talk. Unfortunately not everyone is comfortable being so forthright, so you need to learn to read his body language and cutting the discussion short and holding off until tomorrow or later in the day to bug him.

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