In the almost 30 years I’ve been in the adult working world, I’ve found that people vary greatly in their ability to keep from sharing personal business at work.
There are some people who have all types of personal problems or issues going on in their lives and no one at work ever hears about them. Others drag in a suitcase full of issues every day and are sure to open it up and share it with anyone who will listen . . . repeatedly.
Getting a coworker to stop sharing his or her personal business can be difficult. Most of us want to be friendly and approachable. We want to have good work relationships and don’t want to be seen as “all business.” However, we also want to get our work done without taking it home or staying late because we wasted 45 minutes listening to a coworker share the latest drama with his or her ex. Additionally, sometimes we’re just tired of hearing about the same problem over and over again, especially when we’ve offered our thoughts or advice, and the person refuses to take it.
Here are some ways to say no, or not now, to hearing about a coworker’s personal problems.
1. Politely interrupt with empathy and tell the person you need to get back to work.
Politely interrupt (or wait for him to take a breath) and say, “Craig, I’m sorry you’re having trouble with your ex-wife. These custody issues have been going on for a long time and I know they must be tough for you. (PAUSE) Unfortunately, I’m under a tight deadline and need to get back to my work. Can we talk about it later today?”
This answer acknowledges and empathizes with Craig, but doesn’t entertain further discussion about the ex. It also tells him that your work is important to you and that you need to get back to it. Finally, it even leaves the door open to discussing the issue later. However, don’t say, “Can we talk about it later today?” if you don’t intend to discuss the issue again. If that’s the case, just stop at “…need to get back to my work” and don’t say anything else. Also note: “ex-wife” can be replaced with whatever Molly is sharing– from family to physical problems, and everything in between.
2. Politely interrupt with empathy and redirect the person to someone else who can help.
If Craig happens to be a “repeat offender,” you might approach the situation differently, saying, “Craig, I’m sorry you’re having trouble with your ex-wife again. Unfortunately, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about this over the last month. I just don’t have any other advice or help I can offer. Perhaps you should discuss this with someone in your family or your (pastor, rabbi, psychologist, counselor, lawyer) who might be able to be more help?”
This answer acknowledges Craig, but then rather than empathizing, redirects him to someone else who can help him. It politely, but clearly lets him know you don’t want to talk about the problem again.
3. Politely interrupt, and tell them you’re not comfortable having personal discussions.
If you’re dealing with a coworker with whom you have no interest in sharing personal information and want to be even more firm, another option would be to say, “Craig, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m not comfortable talking about people’s personal information at work.” and then either change the subject, or ask Craig if he needs anything else. You can also use this approach if there’s just a specific type of personal information you’re not interested in hearing. “Craig, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m just not comfortable hearing all the details of your hemorrhoid surgery.”
To some people, telling others you just don’t want to hear about their problems might sound harsh. However, if you just don’t want to have these types of discussions at work, or being the office sounding board is impacting your ability to do your job, this approach is clear, direct, and assertive. Yes, some people will be offended. However, the alternative most people take in their attempt to “soften the blow” by being indirect or vague, simply ends up dragging out the problem and leaves people confused as to whether you do, or do not, want to hear all the details of their personal life.
Asking a coworker to “leave it at home” can be a challenge, but also a necessary part of finding the balance between getting things done and getting along at work.