Recently I overheard a developer describing how his wife constantly interrupts him when he is thinking (i.e., seemingly doing nothing) rather than waiting until he was at a place where he could process what she had to say. It seems he has taken to kicking off a full build when he needs to think, as his wife figures constant activity on his monitor means he is busy.

I once heard of a husband and wife who both worked from home. Times were tight and so they shared an office. A small office. A tiny office, in fact. As with the overheard developer's wife, neither knew when the other was available for conversation. Their office went from overly close to cozy once they agreed to a you-can-talk-to-me code: if the other person is wearing a hat, they're busy; if they aren't they're not.

My wife and I used to have similar issues. The fact that one of us was staring out the window, or reading, or doing pushups, or whatever, might mean we were busy thinking and did not want to be interrupted. Or it might mean that we were spacing off and would welcome some communication time. To further complicate things, we might be able to answer a short question yet not want to dive into an hours-long conversation. Or vice versa. The solution we have developed is to announce "I have a question", or query "May I tell you?", or use other similar means to make known our desire. The other person is then free to indicate they are listening, or request to pend the chat to a later point in time, or to simply ignore the entire opening move.

Back when I was a newbie business minion I felt that I must wait to talk to someone until I was spoken to. Thus I would appear in the door to someone's office and stand there quietly until they happened to notice me. If they were on the phone with someone or had a visitor in their office, then I waited even more unobtrusively. More often than not they were grumpy at me when they finally realized I was there. Eventually I learned to knock, wait a few moments, knock again a bit louder, wait a while longer, and repeat as necessary, increasing the volume of my knock each time. Only once or twice has this escalated to a full-scale attack on the door frame!

On the other side of things, I have discovered that when someone asks whether I am available to talk and then gives me time to switch my attention from whatever I was doing over to them, rather than starting to talk to me without warning, I am better able to concentrate on what they are saying. I also am much more likely to actually be present to the conversation, which tends to result in both of us being happier with the way it turns out.

When people appear in my doorway and hover there silent as a mouse or barge in unannounced at full jabber, I have many different options from which to choose. I can simply ignore them. I can hold up my finger or otherwise indicate "Hold on a moment please". I can ask them to come back in five minutes or thirty minutes or tomorrow. I can take my work somewhere that no one will interrupt me. Or any of a variety of other possibilities. Each of these is my best option in some scenarios and my worst option in others. I am currently learning which is which.

Are you the conversational klutz I used to be, the social savant I strive to be, or somewhere in the middle like I am now?


*** Want a fun job on a great team? I need a tester! Interested? Let's talk: Michael dot J dot Hunter at microsoft dot com. Great testing and coding skills required.