I am a junior developer in a small team of about 20 people, I have been working at this job for about 1 year so far. Every now and then I have to ask a question to my senior coworkers. Those questions are unavoidable.
I do have a pretty good relation with this coworker, I really value his experience and opinion and he always treats me respectful and tries to help and educate me whenever he gets the chance.

The problem is: If I ask something about topic A he will quickly explain things to me, but then proceed to give me useful information about topic B and C which are somehow related to A - so far so good. Sadly he won't stop there, he will explain to me how the company solved problem D back in 1990 and then switched to use design pattern E in 2003. After that he also wants to let me know about the completely unrelated things F and G and will finish off with his personal story H.

Obviously I (only) need an explaination A to solve my problem, B and C usually are also helpful but at this point he already talked for 10-15 minutes and will proceed for at least another 15-20 minutes. This does not cause 'real' trouble for me, since I am still new and don't have strict deadlines to meet but I still want to meet my manager's expectations about my performance(and my own expectations aswell).

How could I stop those conversations at point 'D' which is not related to my question any more without being unpolite and maintaining a good relationship with my coworker in a professional manner?

Some more information:

What did I do already?
I did not talk to talk to my coworker about this problem, however I found out that sending him mails works fine (His answers are really on point then). The problem is that my desk is about 3 steps away from his and when he has office time it would be akward/strange/unusual to send him mails.
I have also tried to ask other coworkers about problems, but I usually get pointed back to the person this question is about.

I tried to find solutions for my problems online, however there are some questions that noone but this guy can answer ( For example: I could not access a folder called 'templates' simply because the - to me not visible - apache settings denied the access, the 403-error was not helpful in order to find out this detail...)

What do I want to avoid?
I don't want my coworker to feel bad about the care he puts in my education/our relationship. I would also like to keep hearing about the related facts B and C .

Thank you for your help in advance.

  • "Those questions are unavoidable. I do have a pretty good relation with this coworker" - the implicit contradiction is strong in that one – sehe Aug 25 '15 at 11:43
  • @sehe, how do you see a contradiction? – teego1967 Aug 25 '15 at 13:05
  • @teego1967 Has a good relation. Avoids having to ask a question. – sehe Aug 25 '15 at 13:06
  • It sounds like this coworker just likes to "shoot the breeze" when he is face to face with you. You might think about organizing lunches to talk with him (invite others in the office also if it feels uncomfortable to just invite him). The next time he starts digressing, say something like "hey , I've been wanting to ask you about <subject>...I've got to get <task> done right now, how about if I buy you lunch and pick your brains on it so we'll have more time to discuss it..." That would let him know you value his knowledge and want to have a good relationship with him. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Aug 25 '15 at 17:58
  • I used to send emails to the guy across the table from me in a small office, when I had questions. He commented on it several times and said that I could just talk to him directly. I tried to explain my motives which are 2: a) I don't want to interrupt him in case he is focused on something , and b) I can't remember everything he says in detail, so I prefer to keep it in writing for future reference. This helped and I think are very valid reasons that people should understand. – user985366 May 12 '17 at 22:57

When you have plenty of time to listen, continue what you are doing (providing the historical information does have some value). But at least at other times, preface your question with something like this:

Hey, NiceGuy, I have a question, but I also have a deadline. Can you give me a quick answer, just an overview, and if I need more details, I'll ask more?

And sometimes, when he gives you more than you need, you'll have to interrupt:

Hey thanks. I know there is more historical information you can give me on this, but right now, I have what I need, and I'd like to get back to work. Thank you again.

There are some people who will talk as long as you let them. It is not rude to interrupt someone if they are keeping you from your work.

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  • I usually say something along the lines of "Thanks so much for this information, you have been very helpful. But<insert boss' name here>, needs me to have this by noon, so I had better get back to it." And remember to thank him in team meetings for being helpful. – HLGEM Aug 25 '15 at 14:14
  • @thursdaygeek Thank you very much for your answer. I really enjoy the historical information but sometimes it is just not the right moment for them. In such situation I will from now on stick with the phrase "I have a question, but I also have a deadline" - sounds reasonable and even a bit funny, exactly what I was looking for :) – MyCoworkerIsActuallyANiceGuy Aug 25 '15 at 16:45

You actually have an enviable problem. You have someone who is willing not only to answer your question but also provide some background, context and perhaps a little too much auxiliary information. The opposite problem, where senior coworkers disregard juniors and make them "fend for themselves" is far more common.

When you ask a question of someone, you're also asking them for their time and attention. How they choose to answer your question is really up to them. Asking a question to the "in-house historian" means you're in for some commitment of time.

Unfortunately, there's no way to cut someone off without having them feel dismissed at some level and, understandably, you don't always have 40 minutes to kill while this guy holds court after answering your question. Sometimes you're going to have to cut the conversation short and the best way to do that is how thursdaygeek's answer outlines. Basically just give a valid reason for cutting the discussion short.

There is one other thing you can do, however, to redeem yourself from any bad feelings caused by your truncation of the discussion: simply remember the last topic/story/anecdote that he was talking about and bring it up at a later time when both of you are free of time constraints. This communicates to him that you were listening and care about what he has to say. It will go a long way towards erasing any feeling of dismissal. Basically that's what all of us want when we talk to people: to be listened to and to have people care about what we have to say. This technique of remembering details and bringing them up later is how many leaders inspire loyalty from people they interact with. You're making a personal connection when you remember and communicate details of what someone told you before.

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  • Thak you for your input, I really appreciate it. I know that I am very blessed with such coworkers - I hoped to make this clear in my question but I cannot stress this out enough. I really like your advice to stick to the details. I always listen carefully to my coworker but every now and then time just pressures me. I will take your advice by heart and start writing down the last thing he told me when I had to go back to work and ask him about the end of the story/anecdote at lunch time. Thank you again for helping me. – MyCoworkerIsActuallyANiceGuy Aug 25 '15 at 16:50