In my work, we sit in cubicles. Well my coworker to the left of me seems to enjoy interrupting me when I'm working... not sure exactly the best way to deal with it.

And then he'll wax about politics, talking like some gray-haired professor. Perhaps I'm partly to blame, but i'm not sure if he's just trying to prove his wit.

Or he'll ask some mundane question that he should be able to easily figure out.

Is it unrealistic for me to expect that when i'm obviously focused on the computer that I shouldn't be bothered? I know that sometimes it may be urgent, but it really isn't in my case.

How can I resolve this issue without losing my cool?

  • 1
    @Jim, I think this is slightly different -- the other is less about someone interrupting you, but more about general disturbance (they could be playing loud music that you can hear, or speaking on the phone loudly, etc.). This is about a coworker who is consciously interrupting.
    – jmac
    Jan 8, 2014 at 1:30
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    @jmac From looking at the other question and its answers, I agree with Jim. Basically all that's written there applies here.
    – CMW
    Jan 8, 2014 at 8:39

3 Answers 3


Executive Summary

Ignoring is a short-term solution with long-term consequences. I recommend:

  1. Understanding why the interruptions happen
  2. Removing as many reasons as possible for the interruptions
  3. Setting boundaries to minimize the interruptions that remain

Understanding the Interruptions

The first step to minimizing interruptions is understanding why your coworker is doing them. People may interrupt for many different reasons:

  • They are bored and want a distraction
  • They are more extroverted and require socializing
  • They don't consider the interruptions to be an imposition
  • They want to feel like they are working in a team
  • They don't feel comfortable tackling their work alone, etc.

If the interruptions are frequent, you may be able to figure out if one or more of the above (or totally separate reasons) seem to be likely causes for the interruptions. Once you have thought about why it's happening, it's time to try to remove those.

Removing the Causes

So let's say that your coworker just gets bored regularly and needs someone to talk to. It may be that if you take coffee breaks with him at convenient points, he will dramatically reduce the amount of times that he interrupts you.

If he's not feeling comfortable tackling the work on his own (and asking you basic questions you wish he would figure out on his own), you can set up time to go over how to find these things on his own for 20 minutes a day or so.

If he's bored and just wants something to do, you can try to get him to help you with some of your work, or give him some side projects that should be done but you don't have time for and think he can accomplish fairly easily.

By understanding why he's interrupting you, and then finding a way to redirect the interruptions to non-interrupting behavior, you can probably greatly reduce the amount of interruptions.

Set Boundaries

There will still be interruptions so long as your coworker doesn't understand that the interruptions are disturbing you. So in addition to trying to redirect his energy away from interruptions, you need to find a way to indicate that the interruptions rub you the wrong way.

One way I've seen some offices handle it is to create a "I'm focusing" signal. Something to indicate "do not disturb" like the proverbial necktie on a door handle in a college dorm. Perhaps it could be wearing headphones. Or it could be a wood block with a red and green side that you flip over to indicate your state of focus. Or it could be writing "focus times" on a whiteboard where your coworker can see it and asking him to do the same so you know when to interrupt or not to interrupt.

Be sure to discuss this in a way that doesn't make the person defensive. So rather than just explaining what the signal is and that you shouldn't be interrupted, introduce it as a mutual signal to prevent interruption (meaning he can use it to prevent you from interrupting too).

  • 1
    The wood block/stoplight indicator is a fantastic idea.
    – Trojan
    Jan 8, 2014 at 9:04

@JMac has a darned good answer, but a few changes from you can go a long way in non-verbally communicating that you don't need to be bothered.

  1. Over-the-ear headphones will immediately silence the "holler over the cubicle wall" interruptions. It will become evident that you are not interested in extraneous noise or conversation, and will make anyone who wants to talk to you approach you and knock for your attention.

  2. In order to not come across as unsociable - take 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon to chat with the guy. You take breaks, and he's obviously ready to talk at any time, so indulge him. Keep an eye on the time, and say "gotta go" when time is up. He'll gradually learn that you're not his personal Facebook / Twitter service, and either find another victim, or maybe even do his own work.

  3. He still needs to ask questions, so be prepared for that. Orient yourself so that you can see the door to your cube, and when he comes to ask a question, and you have your headphones on, acknowledge him. Say, "Just one moment." Finish the work item you are on at that moment, and then take your headphones off and talk to him. It's a little passive-aggressive, but if you start taking just a couple of seconds longer each time, it will gradually "wean" him of the habit, and he'll only ask questions when he's truly stumped.

It's simple behavioral psychology. Reward good behavior, and don't acknowledge bad behavior. The key is to do it gradually and with subtlety, so that the subject isn't aware that he is being conditioned.

A bit of background: I studied to be an audio engineer. I got into it because I liked pushing buttons and turning knobs (among other things). In college, they made me take psychology, where I learned that people have buttons! I've never been bored since that moment.

  • Two serious issues with this. First of all, I disagree that you should assume "he's obviously ready to talk at any time" just because he's more social than you'd like him to be. That runs the risk of doing to him what you don't want done to you. Secondly, I would strongly advise against being passive aggressive or trying to 'train' coworkers who are thinking feeling human beings. It doesn't feel good, and people around will pick up on the not-so-nice vibe as well most likely. I would definitely be a bit worried if employees under me behaved this way rather than discussing it as adults.
    – jmac
    Jan 8, 2014 at 5:51
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    @JMAC - Every single bit of human interaction is designed to influence. The question is: Do you want to influence haphazardly or with purpose? Every relationship requires boundaries to be set and respected. The sooner you get good at it, the happier you and your coworkers will be. Jan 8, 2014 at 16:31
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    I prefer influencing people by treating them with respect and honestly, not passive aggressive manipulation. I find it works better, and causes fewer long-term problems. Your mileage may vary, but in my experience that sort of behavior is picked up on easily by other people and does not give people a positive impression of the person acting that way.
    – jmac
    Jan 8, 2014 at 23:54
  • @Jmac - Preferences are just that - what you prefer. Yes, I'd like to think that everyone was reasonable and socially adept. The fact is they aren't. Sometimes you have to be more forceful and sometimes even direct. People who don't learn their own jobs but rather rely on the knowledge of everyone around them are parasites. This guy is (apparently) relying on the OP to be his reference desk. That alone is a sign of social maladjustment, and must be dealt with accordingly. Jan 10, 2014 at 16:34

Is it unrealistic for me to expect that when i'm obviously focused on the computer that I shouldn't be bothered?

It might be unrealistic for you to expect others to know that you don't want to be bothered unless you make your desires clearer. It either isn't obvious to your neighbor, or he just doesn't care.

How can I resolve this issue without losing my cool?

Assuming you have control of yourself, losing your cool or not losing your cool is a choice you make.

When your neighbor attempts to interrupt you next time, try something like "Hey Mr. Left, I'm really busy here, perhaps we can chat some other time?" Then simply turn away and go back to your work.

This will usually work, but in some extreme cases (really clueless neighbors), you may have to go a step farther.

In one particularly chatty office where I worked, folks would hang a sign on their cubicle next to the opening which said something like "Sorry, I'm busy" or "Do Not Disturb", when they didn't want to be interrupted. Then if anyone tried to interrupt, they simply ignored the offender. It worked for them - it might work for you.

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