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Issue

One of my coworkers has a habit of "tuning me out" while I am talking. This involves completely ignoring me and working on something else.

In Person

This has happened before the requirements to work from home. In the office at their computer after a hour or so of going through our codebase together, they would just switch to a different tab and start looking at the stock market. At first I was really confused and asked them what they were doing, and they would say they didn't understand what I was explaining, become slightly defensive, and then would continue looking at stocks.

My response to this in person would usually be just to say "I guess that's all... just tell me if you have any questions", and then to go back to my desk.

Working Remotely

However, since working from home, they tune me out more often, and after a considerably shorter amount of time. Recently after only 15 minutes of talking about code they switched to a different window and starting working on something else. They were sharing their screen at the time, and we were talking about the code on they screen, so this completely stopped the discussion. I asked them why they switched windows, and they said they didn't understand what I was explaining, and became very defensive.

This would be fine, except this same coworker calls me almost every day to ask questions about our codebase. I contribute the lion's share of code to our codebase, so it isn't unreasonable to frequently ask me questions, but the level of disrespect they are showing is making me dread accepting their calls.

Summary

I'm worried they feel like ignoring people who are in the middle of talking is acceptable behavior, that they are becoming more brazen about doing it, and that they are becoming increasingly defensive in trying to justify their behavior.

I've never experienced anything like this before, so I'm not sure how to respond appropriately. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Notes

I've tried asking them to tell me when they're confused, or have a question, or if anything doesn't make sense. When I do this they become very defensive and often say something along the lines of "everything doesn't make sense", or "I didn't understand anything you said".

I have also tried getting them more engaged in the conversation, but this too seems to cause them to become defensive and just generally say they wish they were working on a with a different language or with a different framework.

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    You say that "getting them more engaged in the conversation" makes things worse, so have you tried keeping things shorter? Based on my experience, when people get distracted, they are signaling they had enough. Feb 7 at 0:50
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    Did this person ask any question before this behavior started? (Could it be, that this person was not successful with asking and because of that never ask again?) It seems to me a weird behavior, to not ask questions, when their is not-understanding... Feb 7 at 13:36
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    @yeerk The true underlying problem seems not to be this person ignoring you, but you (both) not communicating with each other. If they ask vague questions, you cannot know if you are actually answering their question or just "talking at them". Make them ask exactly and precisely what they want to know and then only answer those precise questions. If you have to ask stupid questions like "Do you want me to explain how to check out the code or how to switch to a different branch?" then so be it. Both of you must understand what the goal of the initial question is.
    – Elmy
    Feb 8 at 8:54
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    @KateGregory, it's more along the lines of "nobody could understand you". Ideally they would both communicate more respectfully AND I could adjust my communication style. Advice on either would be great, but if push comes to shove I think my mental well-being (and so having them communicate more respectfully) has to come first.
    – yeerk
    Feb 9 at 1:48
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    If the one paragraph answer is not working, the hour long discussion is not going to be better. So stop with the hour long discussion, and get them to give you a more specific question.
    – swbarnes2
    Feb 10 at 21:34
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I am sure your coworker realizes that abruptly turning away from you and looking at something that has nothing to do with your current conversation is rude. Any suggestions around telling them they are rude is not going to help; they surely must know, and are simply overwhelmed.

I suggest reacting to these weird shifts in a compassionate and empathetic way. When they do it, ask

Do you need a break?

Optionally, you can say "I will be back in 15 minutes" or "let me know when you want to pick this up again."

When you do pick it up again, start with a question. Summarize what you had covered and then:

What point do you want to start at?

If they won't say, you can try

We were at X. We seem to have diverged there. Can you let me know what you were thinking about X? Or wondering about X?

It's possible this person can only do so much code review at a time and then they kind of shut down. Or, it's possible they can only set aside so much "but wait I disagree I want to ask you about that" and their buffer fills up. Right now, you can't know. But if you work with them on this, you may both learn what the problem is and how to handle it.

For example, maybe code review needs to be first thing, never late in the day. Maybe it always needs to be timeboxed, and you can plan what to do between review sessions so you're productive. Maybe things go better if ... well, you and your coworker need to come up with some ideas that will help.

In the meantime, if it's slowing your production that you can only discuss a particular thing for 15 minutes at a time and then you have to do something less important for 15 minutes, you might want to mention this to your boss. Deadlines and workloads might need to be adjusted. It wouldn't be fair, months from now when stuff is not ready on time, to say "well Coworker is impossible to work with and tunes me out and won't discuss the code so of course it took twice as long as we planned." Managers like to know about this stuff while there's still time to do something about it.

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