Sighing Sounds By A Coworker

Question:

Sighing in the work place gives me the impression that a person is bored or frustrated. What is the best way to present this to a coworker to make her stop?

Signed,

Distracted


Answer:

Dear Distracted:

Heavy sighs are one of the recurring sounds that get complained about in office settings, where sighing, popping chewing gum, humming, muttering, whistling and making other repetitive sounds, can be distracting, irritating and eventually infuriating.

People sigh for many reasons, often to express the very things you mention: Boredom and frustration. Repeated sighing can also indicate sadness, depression and a feeling of hopelessness. Sometimes people who are having trouble breathing will sigh as they try to fill their lungs (and in those cases they are often not aware of it). Sometimes it is just a way for the sighing person to convey that he or she is a very hard worker who deserves sympathy or at least the question, “Are you OK?”

If you have worked around your coworker for very long, you probably know which one of the reasons most closely applies. However, unless she has a severe medical condition, she should at least be be made aware of how distracting it is and should try to tone it down unless it is physically impossible for her to do so. If that is the case, perhaps you can talk to your supervisor about moving your work space or you can try to find another solution, based on your specific situation.

I often advise people to discuss problems that have gone on for a long time, by only focusing on the most recent events. This avoids an accusation starting with, “Why is it you always…..” Or, “For the last five years I’ve put up with this but it’s driving me crazy.”

I also remind people to link the issue to work effectiveness for themselves. Otherwise it becomes just a gripe. In this case, every time the coworker sighs it catches your attention and is distracting. When she does it a lot you start wondering what is going on and you become even more distracted, waiting for the next time. After awhile you begin to feel depressed, bored and frustrated yourself, just from listening to it over and over.

Those might not be your thoughts, but they are the kind of things that can explain why you want her to stop.

The next time you hear your coworker sigh loudly enough that you really can hear it and it really is distracting, have your script ready and say it before you chicken and decide not to. Use what I refer to as a confidential tone of voice. It’s a tone that implies you’re trying to be quietly personal about it, seeking an explanation, rather than reacting angrily or saying it loudly enough that everyone can hear.

Go to her work area or lean over, if she is close, and say, with concern: “Hey Jan, I’ve noticed you’ve been doing a lot of heavy sighing today. (Maybe you could imitate it to illustrate your point) Are you OK? Are you sick or are you depressed or something like that? What’s going on?” She’ll probably give you an explanation to make it sound reasonable for her to sigh. Even if she has a reasonable explanation, continue on to press the point:

“Oh. Well, it’s really distracting so I thought I should mention it.” If she responds in a way that seems unconcerned don’t be tempted to be sarcastic or show your irritation, just repeat your primary concern about it again, “It’s distracting when you do that.”

Give it one more time when she sighs and you say something again, “Jan, please, that is really, REALLY distracting. If you’re not feeling well or are depressed about work, you should talk to someone about it.”

After that, if she continues and you think the sounds could be controlled, you can talk to your supervisor and ask him or her to direct her to stop making the distracting noises.

If you do that, be ready to give the list of reasons it is harmful for the job: It’s distracting, it makes you and others preoccupied with wondering what is going on.

I wish there was a sure and magic answer for this kind of situation, but sadly, there isn’t. Often supervisors (and coworkers) don’t want to confront something openly. And, even if they do at first, it ‘s a challenge to stick with it. You’ll have to stay strong!

Hopefully, talking to her directly will make her aware of how problematic her habit has become. It might not stop immediately, but hopefully it will reduce enough to make things tolerable–and eventually it will stop.

Best wishes with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe