133

I'm the youngest/most junior in my office and often one of my managers will come and give me something to do or change some requirement for a project, then just stand behind my desk repeating the same sentence for 30 minutes to an hour.

It'll be something like:

"So I need you to change this function so that it takes in a CSV of filenames instead of one single filename. The function should take in a CSV of filenames instead of one filename. The function should take a CSV of filenames as its input instead of how it is now, where it just takes a single filename..."

See how annoying that is? So I just keep saying:

"Ok. Ok. Ok. I have all I need to work now. Ok"

But that doesn't stop him from continuing to talk. If I put on headphones or start typing he says:

"Hey I'm not finished!"

…and gets mad and aggressive, and keeps repeating the same sentence. I can't tell why he stops when he eventually does.

What's a work-appropriate way to say "Please stop talking and let me work"?

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    Should it not be closed as "opinion-based"? – rapt May 29 at 7:19
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    this makes me wonder, are all your tasks given out only verbally? Don't you guys have some kind of ticketing system? If so, point out to him that he should make a ticket with all the details in it. And if you don't have such system, ask him to put it in an email – Ivo Beckers May 29 at 9:37
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    @rapt given the question has attracted multiple high-quality answers with practical actions the OP can take to address the problem I think we're on pretty solid ground leaving this one open – motosubatsu May 29 at 9:50
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    Have you tried repeating the task to him as well as how you plan to approach it, so he can be sure you understood what is necessary? – skymningen May 29 at 11:27
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    Is it possible that the manager is attempting (rather poorly) to train OP? If so, this may be a difficult problem to solve. – bob May 30 at 1:15

13 Answers 13

318

What's a work-appropriate way to say "Please stop talking and let me work"?

Once they state the request, repeat it back to them and then say:

Do I understand the requirement/change correctly?

If they say yes:

You say “Great, now let me get this done for you”, then turn from them and start working.

If not continue the dialog with the person making the request until they agree that you understand the request and then state:

Great, now let me get this done for you”, then turn from them and start working.

A word of caution, be sure to use a respectful tone as this person is your manager.

The key to this working of course is making certain the person making the request knows that you understand their needs. My educated guess is the person communicating with you is uncertain of your understanding of the new requirement or change.

In short: Make sure the person making the request knows you understand the need by repeating the request back to them.


An alternate approach: Another approach you could take is to ask them to email you the request so that you are certain nothing gets missed. This approach allows you to show you care about the requirement while putting the onus on them to give you the details in writing.

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    Nailed it! The manger will be wanting confirmation that the instructions have been received and understood the repetition of instructions back as this confirmation is time-tested and proven. – motosubatsu May 28 at 15:56
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    According to the OP, he simply replies "OK" after the boss mentions this. So yes, I agree with this answer as it confirms what the boss says instead of an "OK" but not understood if understood. – Dan May 28 at 16:35
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    In addition to this, if your boss feels you are likely to forget the instruction, write it down while he is there and read it back to him. – Dave May 29 at 7:45
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    '"Great, now let me get this done for you", then turn from them and start working.' - this++; physically turn away from your computer and towards your manager when they come to your desk, so that you can turn away from them and physically signal that the conversation is over in addition to the verbal signal. – Aaron F May 29 at 8:55
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    +1 This is definitely a communication issue, where the manager doesn't know if the OP actually understands the requirements. If the OP is only responding with "Ok. Ok" then that's probably why, since in my experience just responding with "ok" normally means "I don't really understand." – Wipqozn May 29 at 12:20
63

What's a work-appropriate way to say "Please stop talking and let me work"?

I'd suggest, don't say that verbally; let your actions speak for you.

Question: Do you know why they are being repetitive? Do they feel you did not understand enough? Do they feel you're not paying enough attention?

The thing is, you need to make it clear to them that you understood the requirement clearly and not in need for further clarification.

So,

  • listen attentively
  • take notes if necessary
  • and, once they finish providing the instructions, you can try saying:

"Thanks for explaining that. So I need to do X, and to get that done I need to change P, Q, R, and add Y to Z. Finally, the outcome should be X. Is my understanding correct?"

This is a method called "brief back", one of the popular tools in effective communication. This way they will have confidence that you understood the requirement clearly and in case there is a gap / mistake, they will get to correct it.

The outcome:

  • If they say "yes" and move on, that's the intended result.
  • If they still continue to explain, ask them politely

    "Yes, but I think we covered that already, is there anything else you'd like to add?"

Use different variants, to the best of your wisdom, based on the person / situation.

19

It's hard to say what is causing your manager to do this, but general human nature is to address things in a way that meets our own needs. (1) They may be a micro-manager by nature, they may not trust you, they may think they're helping or just forcing you to prioritize their task for immediate completion, they may be avoiding their own tasks... hard to say, sometimes even if you know the people and situation well.

Regardless, communicating professionally and taking initiative will address a wide spectrum of workplace issues like this, and also make it clear to anyone 'up the chain' that you are both competent and an great asset to keep around because you are competent and eager to solve problems instead of resisting assignments.

How to accept a work assignment like a professional

  1. Don't wait for your manager to change, or even ask them to manage the task in a different way (e.g. "send me an email" or "ok ok just let me work") - if they knew how to handle it better, presumably they would already be doing that. If they don't trust you for some reason, you have to change your own behavior first as a means of changing theirs. No need to be walked on or take abusive behavior, just out-professional them until it's obvious that the best way to handle you is to get out of your way and let you work your magic.

  2. When someone starts to give you a task, grab a pencil and a notepad(2), and write down a bullet list of their requirements as they talk. Make sure they see you doing this, and can see the notepad contents. That way they know you are taking it seriously, it won't be forgotten, and it won't be mis-remembered - by either party.

  3. Ask specific questions and record details as they explain, then review the final list of requirements. Once each point has been fully explained, ask "Does that cover everything?" Repeat until they say "yes, that's all." If the task is large or the discussion looks like it's going to take more than a couple minutes, ask to grab a meeting room or set up an official time to get the full set of requirements. If you ever want to get work done uninterrupted at your desk, establish an expectation of getting tasks defined somewhere else, ideally at scheduled times (i.e. "a meeting"!) instead of whenever someone feels like interrupting you. Yes, meetings can be useful even though they can also be awful and soul-sucking - so don't let people hold them at your desk, there's no where else to escape to after that.

  4. Once you have everything written down, establish the priority and timeline of the task. This can range from "sure I can do that now / this afternoon" to "I won't have 2 weeks for this until next quarter." For larger assignments, you may need some time to develop an estimate - if so, tell them "I will figure out how long this will take and let you know [in 10 minutes / after lunch / tomorrow]." If you have too many other tasks already queued up, tell them "I have project X and Y due by Z, which one should I do first?" If they are not in charge of your priorities, loop in the person who is and get a consensus. Then document it.(3)

  5. Thank them for taking the time to clarify their requirements for you, and end the conversation with something like "great, I'll get started on that [now / next week / at the agreed time] and let you know as soon as it's done." This indicates your commitment to take ownership of and complete the task, and is a polite cue that the conversation is over. If they don't take the hint and move on of their own initiative, you may need to escalate slightly to "Was there anything else you needed?" Unless it's an immediate task or they absolutely need to be there for you to complete it, they should start realizing their presence is actively preventing you from working on their task and be on their way. If they're not socially aware enough to take the hint, this is a great time to excuse yourself to use the restroom - very few people will try to continue a discussion at that point, and even fewer will follow and keep talking as you walk away. They are also unlikely to stay at your desk or stalk you later.

  6. Send a written follow-up message as soon as possible via your official work channel (email, Slack, whatever) with a brief intro ("Thanks for discussing Z with me today, here's my plan for handling it"), the contents of your written notes, including the requirements, priority, and expected timeline. This documents your understanding of the task, when the assignment was made, and any priority changes that were made affecting other tasks. It also gives your manager:

    • Confirmation that you understand the task correctly and accepted it
    • Documentation of exactly what the task was
    • A chance to clarify any misunderstandings or change their mind on the details.
    • Accountability to not change the task or claim it was something different
  7. As work proceeds, communicate your progress and any changed requirements in writing. The natural route of least friction for both parties is to just respond to the original message. If the manager gives you verbal changes, write them down as part of the discussion(4) and add them to the written communication chain as soon as possible - this prevents unnoticed scope creep for both parties. Regular reporting and status updates also keeps you on task, documents your progress, assures the manager it's being handled, and demonstrates that you take initiative - all excellent ways to keep a manager off your back.

  8. When you are done, send a final message to report that the task is complete. Give a very brief summary of the task, clearly state that you consider the task to be finished, and ask them to provide further direction if they feel anything else is needed in regards to that task. This closes the loop on your responsibility, gives the manager notice that the task is done, and puts the burden on them to request further action.

Obviously the specifics of exactly how you follow any part of this process depend on the complexity of the task, your relationship with the person, company procedures, etc, but in my experience this is a pretty good outline to follow for just about any assignment. It prevents a host of communication problems, shows you are professional and dependable, and encourages those you are working with to behave in the same way. Doubly so for freelancers or consultants, who generally work under a higher expectation of accountability and self-direction.

1: Whether a given belief or approach actually meets those needs or is effective long-term is a whole different discussion.
2: Don't ever use an electronic device for note-taking in person - it is easier to focus without notifications or open windows, and makes it clear that you are actively listening and not texting. Type it up later - you are keeping notes of everything you do in the project folder or a note-taking app, right?
3: If everything is always the #1 priority and you are constantly overloaded by a manager who doesn't grasp scheduling, prioritization, and finite bandwidth, you will probably never be able to please them and "just working harder" will likely become a death march. Politely make them aware that you are unable to meet the expectations, escalate to their superior with concrete examples if needed and ask for intervention, and/or find a new position. 4: Ideally all future notes are dated and added as an addendum under the original notes. Once a meeting/discussion is over, never overwrite your original notes - just draw a line and add a heading like "post-discussion notes" with the date and time. It's important to be clear (for yourself and others) what the understanding was at a given point in time, because it will shift and fade as the project progresses. "The dullest pencil is better than the sharpest mind."

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    This one! I think giving a time estimate is a very important detail to acknowledge the request and signal that you already gave a priority level to that task. – clabacchio May 30 at 7:40
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    What I like about this is that it subtly says that one should not find a polite way to say "shut up and let me work". The better approach is to listen attentively while the manager has their say. This is like treating the manager as a customer, which in many ways they are, and it's better customer service to let the customer have their say, however long and useless it may be or seem. – Todd Wilcox May 30 at 14:01
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    If there is a ticketing system, open a ticket, add all this to it, assign the ticket to yourself, mark it in progress, and mark the manager as "watching" (or whatever your system calls it). This also establishes an official "I got it, this is what you asked for, I'm working on it". – Joe McMahon May 31 at 23:05
16

Help him to figure it out.

When he first provides the instructions, get out a note pad and a pen (yes really) and write down his instructions.

Then, when he repeats himself, write down his new instructions immediately below his previous instructions. When done writing, review the notes in their totality, read it back to him, and then act genuinely confused. "Wait. This is pretty much the same as what you just said, right?" When he says yes, be nice about it. "Cool."

When he repeats himself again, write it down yet again. And describe what you just wrote, again. Review it again and humbly, in a confused fashion, ask, "Is this pretty much the same? OK cool."

Do all of this as slowly as possible. Make him wait while you are writing. Stay nice.

Each time he repeats himself, do it again, as if what he is saying is very important and you are hanging on every word. He is the boss and your are, after all, just a junior employee.

Eventually he will see that he is just repeating himself and wasting time (yours and his), and will hopefully stop.

The key is to be nice, enthusiastic, and respectful. If you show even a hint of sarcasm, these actions will seem passive aggressive. Done properly, it will demonstrate to your manager how silly he is being. But that is a conclusion he needs to reach on his own.

If he fails to figure it out after a dozen repetitions, at least you have a written document (that you can show his manager) that makes it clear what the problem is.

P.S. And as PaulJ has wisely noted, there is a chance that you yourself are in the wrong, not the manager, and working through this process with him will suss that out.

  • The key to being respectful is knowing that their is the "chance" that perhaps one's beliefs and understanding of the situation is in error. Perhaps the boss is working through the problem while explaining it and needs guidance. Perhaps the sr is not aware of his repetitiveness. Perhaps while performing the above, the jr will see the requirements clarified. – paulj May 29 at 14:57
  • I was just getting ready to write my own answer but I luckily found yours and it portrays my thoughts 100%. If they are wasting your time then make sure to respectfully waste theirs so that they think before they speak next time. – MonkeyZeus May 30 at 17:35
11

Educate your boss and get those requirements written down because verbal requirements aren't formal requirements and therefore don't count.

After about the second or third requirement, say

Ok, I'm probably going to forget these requirements or miss things because I'm working and listening at the same time. Could you please write these up and email them to me, and then I'll work on them all at the same time.

Then go grab a coffee while he walks back to his desk.

If any of those emailed requirements don't make sense, or contradict, then answer the email and request clarification. You now have a paper-trail.

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    I'd avoid using any variation of "I'm probably going to forget these requirements" with anyone, much less a nagging manager, as it implies you are the problem rather than their approach. Instead, grab a pad of paper and make a bullet list of requirements while they're talking. Review it together and have them verify it is accurate and complete, and then type it up and email it to them "just to verify". Then you have a paper trail that shows what your requirements were, and it is on them to make any corrections in writing if needed. – brichins May 28 at 23:47
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    @brichins: I would upvote that if you posted it as an answer. – Daniel R. Collins May 29 at 0:00
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    Why would you be working while listening to him? – Azor Ahai May 29 at 19:00
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    @DanielR.Collins Done, and expanded on, since I initially didn't feel that justified a separate answer. Until I started writing it and couldn't stop. – brichins May 29 at 19:32
8

First off, there are a bunch of polite ways to cut off a conversation - and putting on headphones isn't one of them. You'll want to Google up that part, as it's a bit orthogonal to your main question, and is a huge topic in it's own right.

If they're repeating something multiple times, there's probably a reason as I can guarantee they have better things to do. I don't really know you, but from my past interactions with Junior programmers, I'd hazard the guess that the first couple of times they didn't do this, and you messed something up on a fundamental level.

That's OK, it's part of learning, and the only way out of it is building trust that you can handle things without quite so much hand-holding. A great way to do this is being up front about your limitations and what decisions are above your pay grade.

Something like this has worked well for me:

OK, so you need me to <repeat back their request, in your own words>?

[Wait for confirmation]

I'm currently doing <current task>, does this have higher priority?

[If yes] Great, can you add this to the ticket while I get started on <first part of request>?

[If not] Great, I want to make sure this doesn't fall through the cracks, can you add this to the ticket while I finish up <current task>?

8

Putting on headphones is an extremely rude thing to do, and it is unimaginable in the developed world. If you do it, either you should work for a very... problematic company, you should be very young, or you should live in a quite unlucky country.

Managers are your bosses. If they want to talk you, instead of working, then you should talk to them.

The fact that you were in a meeting with a boss for five hours that day, thus you could work only 3 hours, is their responsibility and not yours. You can politely warn them, once. If you have to do thing "X" for tomorrow, and the manager is talking to you for an hour, then you can warn the manager: "Sorry I need to do X until tomorrow, if we continue the talk, probably I won't be ready".

You have the option to leave a workplace because of the too many meetings, but you have no option to directly reject a workplace task. If the manager is coming to you to talk, then your workplace task is to listen to him, and be cooperative with him.

Furthermore, listening to headsets in the workplace is bad practice, because it isolates you. If you listen to the headset which others can also hear, and possibly annoy them, then you are incompatible with a professional workplace.

Alternatively, I can also imagine that you know, or can do, something that makes you crucial for them, and thus they can't fire you.

  • Having too many meetings/boss talks is a common problem, particularly in IT workplaces, so it is a strong position for you.
  • The headset and the direct rudeness works strongly against you.
  • The open rejection of your workplace obligations is a reason to fire you.

The sum of these is that if they were to fire you on the spot, you couldn't say that anything unexpected has happened to you.

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    @Jan Somehow I have the impression that it has exactly zero importance for the OP, to not share his "music" with his co-workers. – Gray Sheep May 29 at 8:27
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    Just wanted to point out that opinions vary on whether "istening headsets on the workplace is a bad practice". At least when it comes to software development, as in the case described by the OP. – Jan May 29 at 9:40
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    This answer focuses a lot on the fact that the OP uses headphones at all, which in my (US-based) experience is standard enough in focus-based work to be essentially mandatory. The manager's complaint seems to be that the OP is visibly disengaging rather than listening to music at work at all. – Milo P May 29 at 16:18
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    It is incredibly rude to put on headphones in order to cut conversation. But Gray Sheep probably doesn't realize that many if not most US workplaces are now open space, which means you're practically sitting on coworkers' lap, and that you need headphones in order to get any work done at all – George M May 29 at 22:36
7

There are two techniques I'd recommend.

First, have him see you write down each requirement. With some managers, they lean so heavily toward strictly verbal requirements, it's almost like they need a scapegoat if things go south, and writing things down deprives them of that. Of course, many are simply busy, and seeing you write down specs should be fine for them.

Second, when he is finished with the specs, ask, "is there anything else you'd like to add?". As long as he adds, keep writing and repeating the question. When he's finished, he'll have to answer, "no", and it should become crystal clear (and polite and respectful) that's it's time for him to go.

6

I’d recommend just asking them to have the conversation over chat. You can explain that that way you’re able to refer back to the discussion as needed. Also, it’s important that your requirements be documented - so, when you do have the conversation, if your team uses a project management software, ask that your colleague write down the requirements somewhere.

Documenting requirements is hugely important. I live by the rule that “if it’s not in {tracking software}, it doesn’t exist”. This provides you with reference material to ensure you’re building and testing the right product, and it gives the designer an audit trail if anything happens to go wrong at the end and they want to know if they asked for a feature or functionality.

5

Sounds like you do not have a formal issue tracking system in place to manage this sort of change.

Suggest the following process:

  • Immediately respond with "Cool. Let me capture exactly what is needed".
  • Open a spreadsheet, preferably on a shared location and named something like "Project X - Requirements Changes"
  • Have columns Date Asked, Who By, Requirement
  • Write up the exact requirement - ask questions to capture clearly what is needed.
  • Ask whether what you have written is correct.
  • You can finish the conversation with "Cool. We are all set."

Alternatively, do this kind of thing in a basic issue tracker - Trello can be great for this, and there are plenty of other options. This then has the benefit of educating the whole team on effective issue tracking and moving it over to do so as a matter of course.

You might think this sounds like too much bother and there must be an easier way. With this approach you do invest a small amount of effort but get a big return on it.

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    I would actually suggest to push for a issue tracking system over the spreadsheet thing. Issue trackers are a basic industry standard, which means that you can just search the web for all kinds of arguments about why they are beneficial. – Jan May 29 at 10:29
  • @Jan I admit that as I wrote this, I considered that approach. Really depends on the company culture and the confidence of the OP. Totally agree that getting them on to such is very worthwhile. And by 'big return' I meant that a careful approach brings kudos to the OP, not just solve the immediate problem. – Keith May 30 at 0:26
3

Let's think about this from the other side.

This may not be the case for you, but one reason a manager may do this is because they have had problems with people not following the instructions they were clearly given. As many of the answers above point out, paraphrasing the instructions clearly and concisely is the best way to be sure you understand. The manager needs to feel confident you clearly understand the instructions. If you have every made mistakes following any instructions in the past, this would explain why the manager feels the need to do this.

I generally prefer to get sophisticated tasks via email so I have a written record of what was originally requested, but you cannot demand this of a manager unless you are a superstar employee the company can't live without. Instead, after the conversation has finished I would recommend typing up the key information and checking that you haven't missed anything via email; however, you should also do this with any additional requirements or changes.

Of course, the manager may just be odd, but you should never assume this.

2

You simply need to give the manager the impression of totally understanding everything and totally being in control -- as a matter of fact, you already are, or otherwise you wouldn't want to interrupt them in the first place.

So what I would do is appear overly confident, appear to understand everything he says and exude a Pulp Fiction-style "I'm Mr. Wolfe. I solve problems" attitude. When you appear to be Mr. Wolfe, people will stop telling you what to do, and let you do your work.

  • Where I live you can look your boss in the face and tell him just that. I know enough, now let me work. I have done that. (I also have done ruder things, but those are not always appreciated.) – Willeke May 30 at 11:48
-1

What I learned from the military is to keep your answers short, yes, no, and I don't know. Do not make eye contact and focus on what you're doing. This can be done nicely. The employer will see that he is interrupting your work at the least.

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    Most military organizations have some means of correcting for persons in command of others being very bad at their job. Those means tend to be worse in corporations, as the consequences of being a bad commander very seldomly leads to people, possibly including the bad commander, dying. - Also you will not be fired for following stupid orders. – Alexander Kosubek May 29 at 10:01
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    The military tend to have an ethos of fault always bubbling upwards - if a subordinate fails a taks, it is because his superior didn't do HIS job properly, didn't supervise adequately. – Mike Brockington May 29 at 15:37

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