Practical Communication

How to Tell a Coworker to Leave His (or Her) Personal Business at Home

In the 20 plus years I’ve been in the adult working world, I’ve found that people vary greatly in their ability to “leave it at the door.”

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 it. 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.

Over the course of hundreds of workshops, I’ve had people ask, “How do I tell my coworker that I don’t want to hear about his/her personal life?”

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 relationships with our coworkers 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.

Here are some ways to say no, or not now, to being the office sounding board.

Politely interrupt (or wait for her to take a breath) and say, “Molly, I’m sorry you’re having trouble with your ex-husband again. I know that must be tough. (pause) Unfortunately, I’m under a tight deadline and need to get back to my work. Can we talk about it at another time?”

This answer acknowledges and empathizes with Molly, but doesn’t entertain further discussion about the ex. It also tells her 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 this at another time?,” 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 husband” can be replaced with whatever Molly is sharing– from family to physical problems, and everything in between.

If Molly happens to be a “repeat offender,” you might approach the situation differently, saying, “Molly, I’m sorry you’re having trouble with your ex-husband again. Unfortunately, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about this over the last month and 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) who might be able to be more help?”

This answer acknowledges Molly, but then rather than empathizing, redirects her to someone else who can help her. It politely and pretty clearly lets her know you don’t want to talk about the problem again.

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, “Dave, I’m just not comfortable sharing personal information at work.” and then either changing the subject, or if Dave came to your office to see you, asking 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. “Dave, I’m just not comfortable hearing all the details of your hemorrhoid surgery.”

Although this last answer might sound harsh to some, it is clear, direct, and assertive. Sometimes in our attempt to “soften the blow” we don’t make ourselves clear and end up dragging out the problem. Additionally, when we’re vague, we leave the other person unsure whether we do, or do not, want to hear all the details of his or her personal life.

Whether you choose to use one of the sample phrases above, some combination of the above, or come up with your own script– be sure to think carefully about what you’ll say, how you’ll say it, and what the other person’s reaction will be– so you present yourself professionally. You are at work after all.

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