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This seems like an incredibly basic question, but one I nonetheless have trouble with. In an office environment, can anyone give advice on how to interrupt an ongoing conversation between co-workers when I need to speak to one of them (now or later), without creating awkwardness?

  1. Have you found it best to interrupt people deep in conversation saying, "Can we talk when you have 5 minutes?" implying they have the duty to follow up.

  2. Ideally I say the one already conversing would deftly say to his co-locutor, "Excuse me for a moment," then turn to the newcomer and either say, "Do you need something?" or else, "I'm sorry, I will be with you in 10 minutes."

Method 2 relies on the one speaking to be situationally aware – I admit I have failed in this when deeply engrossed in a technical topic – but creates an uncomfortable situation when the speaker is not. Even if the ongoing discussion is important, I feel someone who made to effort to seek me out in person has earned a minimum level of acknowledgement.

Method 1 seems deceptively simple, but I have occasionally been (what I consider to be rudely) rebuffed or ignored when attempting that approach.

I find it particularly dismaying when the ones conversing are clearly discussing a fishing trip or something entirely personal, while the newcomer needs to conduct business. With that said, two people have every right to discuss these things at work.

Strangely, I cannot recall this being a problem in school, or in any context prior to the professional work environment. Is it lack of proper education in manners, or some idiosyncrasy of corporate life, that engenders this difficulty?

My hope with this question is to hear advice or tactics found to be successful, while being as polite as possible, in this situation.

Thank you.

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    Why can't you just send them a message and ask if they are available to chat before you walk over? Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 3:50
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    How urgent is the matter you are wanting to discuss with them?
    – AsheraH
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 4:10
  • It is a general scenario, urgency varies. Very rarely does something need to be addressed in a matter of minutes; and if it did, I would have no difficulty conveying that. I'm just asking for general advice or things that have worked for others, and I'm getting good feedback so far.
    – RC_23
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 4:32
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    Message them, don't interrupt
    – Hilmar
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 6:59
  • Can you add a language or country tag? Cultural norms on what is or isn't acceptable vary widely between different languages/ cultures/ countries.
    – quarague
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 17:44

3 Answers 3

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In most cases, simply behave the same way that you would if you dropped by their desk and they were away. Go back to your desk, send an email or an IM, create a ticket, or whatever else you'd do if they weren't there (perhaps there is someone else that could answer the question, for example).

If you need to speak to a particular person urgently, it makes sense to interrupt. "Hey Bob, I've got an irate customer on the phone and I need your manager override to fix the issue". But in the vast majority of cases, there is no need to interrupt an ongoing conversation to get your question answered.

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It really depends on the urgency and the situation and the conversation that is happening.

If it's Urgent - then a simple but polite:

"Excuse me Bob, I've XYZ issue and it's urgent"

If it's not super-duper urgent, but and the conversation they are having isn't massively important - then I've sometimes done the old catch their eyes - indicate I want to speak to them, hold up say 5 fingers (to say - can I talk to you in 5 minutes) and then leave them to it.

If it's not super urgent and they are having an important conversation, then you may just have to walk away and send an email and wait.

You'll get a pretty good idea as to what constitutes 'Important enough to interrupt' at your workplace - and once you've got a reasonable grasp on that, a simple, confident and polite "Excuse me" is normally sufficient.

One thing to add aswell - if you are interrupting a Conversation - make sure you give them the most important info (e.g. why it is important enough to interrupt) first and foremost.

It can be pretty daunting at first, especially if your company has a really steep heirachy and you are not sure who you can approach - but once you get a feel for what can what and what cannot - you'll be fine.

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can anyone give advice on how to interrupt an ongoing conversation between co-workers when I need to speak to one of them (now or later) ?

If this is a very urgent and critical issue, then try to politely get his attention at the right moment, and then explain the issue to him ASAP.

However, if this is not a very urgent issue, you can try a simple solution as follows:

Carry a pen and a notepad, which you already write some important and authentic notes about the business discussion, to the coworker's office.

When you enter his office, politely greet him, and smile to everyone, and don't interrupt his chat. If he sees your notepad, chances are good that he knows you come here for a business discussion, and he will likely ask you how he can help you. After that, he can decide whether to talk to you now or to come to your office a few minutes later if this is not an urgent issue.


Of course, "non-work related" chats are important to build good and friendly work relationship among coworkers, and should be carried on whenever possible (i.e. after you handle the critical business discussions).


I find it particularly dismaying when the ones conversing are clearly discussing a fishing trip or something entirely personal, while the newcomer needs to conduct business.

Generally, at work, business discussions should have higher priority than "non-work related" chats. The company pay you to do the work. Everyone knows that.

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