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I have a coworker in another department, and she and I work closely on many projects. She is very knowledgeable in her field, and I am in mine, and I really like her. The only problem is that when I ask her a simple and very specific question, she responds with a lengthy lesson on all other aspects of the project, telling me how to do things I already know. When she does this, I kindly say, "yes, that is what I am doing" or similar. But she persists and repeats herself. I know she is trying to be helpful, but she is essentially treating me as if I know nothing. I have seen her do this to other coworkers as well. What is the best way to deal with her? Thank you in advance!

  • Yes, the term "mansplaining" springs to mind. Seems to be something that some people are just born with? – bharal Apr 6 '15 at 12:50
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    The reason she most likely does this is she values knowledge and her being able to explain something and help you makes her feel valuable. You shouldn't take it as a slight on you; if you don't like it, I'd suggest not asking her questions. – UnhandledExcepSean Apr 6 '15 at 13:38
  • @bharal please don't use a term meant to bash men, its rather sexist. – Andy Apr 6 '15 at 22:15
  • @bharal - there is a difference between being condescending ("mansplaining") and simply gushing information – HorusKol Apr 6 '15 at 23:50
  • Ghost, thank you. I think you have a good point about her value. Her intentions are good, and I have not felt that she was condescending. I do have a slight concern that if she really thinks I need all of this assistance, it will get back to my manager. Plus, I don't like being put on the defensive. I suppose if it continues, I will have to have a talk with her. – AIR Apr 7 '15 at 1:48
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It's all in how you ask the question. The same principles that apply when you file a bug report or ask a question on Stack Exchange will serve you here. "How do I do X?" is open-ended; she may not know what you already know. Try giving her some context: "I'm trying to do X. I've already done A and B, and I know that I'll have to do C after this, but I'm not sure about this one step. Can you help?" This brackets the problem and shows that you've done some research already. And she'll probably appreciate it, judging from the coworkers I've had who are most in demand for advice/mentoring/answers.

  • Thank you, Monica! Believe it or not, this is the exact approach I have taken with her. For this last instance, I told her I was working on x project, and could she please take a look at these 6 headings (e.g., filename, directory, sheet) and let me know which ones will provide her with enough information so that she can complete her portion of the project. She still felt the need to explain the entire project to me. I may have to resort to cutting her off, unfortunately! – AIR Apr 7 '15 at 1:53
  • @AIR Any reason why she thinks you know nothing about the project? You obivously come to her with specific information and questions, yet she feels the need to explain it all over again? – Edwin Lambregts Apr 7 '15 at 8:52
  • Edwin, I think it's just her personality--she does it with others (even directors), so I don't think it has to do with me in particular. She just really wants to be helpful. She seems to be really happy when she knows she's contributing. – AIR Apr 7 '15 at 15:24
  • Some people feel or need to feel superior to others. I have run into people like this, some of them very smart too, and it is very frustrating to always be talked down to. Chalk it up to her personality and start cutting her off if you have to with, thank you for the information, I have it from here. – Bill Leeper Apr 7 '15 at 18:31
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I think that you should take it positively and feel happy of having such a coworker (from another department). It is really nice that she is spending a good amount of time to write detailed e-mails/messages about the projects. May be she want you to be expert in all the aspects of the project. Even if you are an expert/knowledgeable of your project, take whatever you like from her e-mails and acknowledge a "thank you".

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    Offering broad and basic advice is helpful once or twice. After that, it becomes repetitive and a waste of time. It's most effective to communicate at an appropriate level with your audience. Consider the tech support example: if you have already rebooted your machine and it did not help, it would be more efficient to skip that part of the discussion. – Eric Apr 6 '15 at 15:12
  • @Eric: I am not sure what is wrong with showing some tolerance to the co-worker who is always trying to provide more information than required unless she/he is CCing those e-mails to all the team members . – samarasa Apr 6 '15 at 17:12
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    Going over the basics on a project with someone once or twice is good. 10 times is too much and is wasting time. Also, it is a skill to be able to adjust the tone and content of a conversation based on those involved. Always acting as though the others are uninitiated novices is not good. – Eric Apr 6 '15 at 18:54
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    Samarasa, thank you. That is the perspective I was hoping to get, and I think you nailed it. She really wants people to succeed and understand. I still can't get over the frustration of it all, but having reminders such as yours in the back of my mind will help! – AIR Apr 7 '15 at 1:56
  • Eric, thank you as well. It hasn't yet gotten to the point of excessive repetition, but if it does, I will have to say something. You also make an excellent point about knowing your audience. I'm fairly certain she doesn't, as she has done this with the executives as well! – AIR Apr 7 '15 at 1:56
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I would tell her "I am sorry I have to cut you short, but I am literally under the gun - my butt is on fire. The single most helpful thing you can do for me right now is to give me the short answer, with me asking you for clarifications as I need them."

Now that I think about it, I had evolved the same technique when interviewing: "You asked me a very broad question. I am going to take my best guess as to what you want from me and give you the shortest, most relevant answer I can think of. If you have further questions and want clarifications, we'll follow up. Agreed?" It doesn't hurt your credibility to come across as business-like :)

  • Great ideas! Thank you! And I like the interview tips. I'm hoping not to need them any time soon! – AIR Apr 7 '15 at 1:58
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This happened to me very recently as well. A colleague was teaching me (and a few of my colleagues) about how to use re-sharper or anything related to software development any time we were discussing a problem.

Even though it is a little bit frustrating (hearing very basic information that is not related to a problem that you are discussing), as it makes you feel really low.

After some time I learnt how to ignore her comments and I just appreciate working with her. If you feel that you are close with your colleague I wouldn't be afraid to say "Yes, you don't have to explain that to me." and have a laugh about it.

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    how basic are we talkin here? – easymoden00b Apr 6 '15 at 20:48
  • "press alt + enter", "press ctrl + n", how to add a web.config transformation etc. (things that everybody knows, at least it's a standard in our company) – Jakub Apr 6 '15 at 23:30
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    Thank you, Jakub. It helps to know I'm not alone in this! I like the approach of making it humorous--I hate confrontation! – AIR Apr 7 '15 at 1:59
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I agree this is nice and it is better to have her and not someone who is not accessible. High performance businesses however do not spend time on unecessary things.

You can use an agenda or template for your meetings. I mean just a light one, like problem/issue/point, action, deadline written on a sheet. You can use this for every discussion point to drive your meetings. It takes time, but it pays off. After a while you'll have a new routine for action plans for example.

I use the same technique for quick reporting. I lay out a bulletpoint list and go over it like a mantra.

Sometimes you need information or a decision quickly, with simple tools like this you can drive the talk. It is important to talk over a paper or whiteboard. This way it becomes external. She won't feel that you are trying to avoid her overcommunication. The whole thing will be about solving a point on the paper.

  • Thank you, Mark. Despite my using similar techniques (being very clear and concise, in writing), she still goes off on her lessons. I have a feeling this will take extra resolve on my part! – AIR Apr 7 '15 at 2:02
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You may want to send the question in an email and then schedule some time to meet for an answer. Some people are a little chatty especially if they don't have time to prepare a response. When you have the meeting, let her know that time is limited. You're going to have to tell her to stop when she goes off topic. She may be offended, but she needs to know that she does this with others and it is to her benefit to get to the point and leave the other stuff out.

  • Thank you, JeffO. She has actually requested a meeting to discuss, and I'm hesitant, only because it will take a brief email on her part to answer my question. And the meeting will set me up for more "lessons." But maybe it will be a good opportunity to practice my censoring skills! – AIR Apr 7 '15 at 2:00
  • If an email response is good enough, just ask for an email response and then you'll decide if you need to ask for more. – user8365 Apr 7 '15 at 16:27
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Some folks just naturally organize their thoughts in chapters rather than paragraphs, and automatically start giving all the context and alternatives and so on. Growing up around someone with this inclination I learned that I could gently say "you're drifting off topic a bit; I only need to know..." and usually redirect them appropriately, and as long as the tone is friendly rather than annoyed most won't take offense -- they've been told that before.

(The real problem was a conference call with someone who both had this tendency ... and was using a half-duplex phone, so as long as he wax talking he couldn't hear us trying to interrupt. I had to get together with him separately, point out the problem, and suggest he deliberately introduce pauses, or tell us the basics and wait for someone to ask for more detail. He's gotten much better.)

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