How to Respond When Conversations Get Too Personal at Work

Recently, a reader of the Talent@Work blog submitted such a good question that I wanted to share both the question and response so others readers might benefit from it too.

Brenda's Question:

"As a manager, I have had several situations where a direct report shared highly personal information such as the details of counseling sessions attended with a significant other or spouse. One individual even shared an experience of being raped. Many of these conversations take place in casual settings such as in the company cafe. I am extremely uncomfortable listening to these details. As a manager, I am unclear as what my response should be when I find myself in these deeply personal conversations. Why would someone want to share these intimate details with their boss?"

My reply:

Brenda, you ask a great question! Understanding the motivation behind employee behavior is a key component of being an inspiring manager.

Since you completed a TTI assessment revealing your preferred communication style and workplace motivators before submitting your question, I have an important piece of information about you that helps me answer your question. Yet, even without the assessment, I could have guessed that differing communications styles were at the heart of this issue.

Your style is task-focused, not people focused. You are an "implementer" who prefers to deal with facts, systems and processes rather a “relater” who thrives on activities centered around interacting with other people. People with your communication style prefer direct, fact based, and to-the-point conversations. They love check lists.  They also avoid emotional communication, so it’s no surprise at all that very personal conversations involving emotional experiences make you feel uncomfortable.

It is likely that the employees who share personal information with you have a communication style that is at the opposite side of the Success Insights Wheel. Where you are task focused, they are people focused, so they need to socialize, to engage in chit chat about what happened over the weekend and share personal feelings. They want to connect with you on an emotional level. If they feel like they can’t get your attention to connect with you, they will start sharing deeper information to establish connection. Essentially, they are trying to evoke and provoke an emotional response in order to feel closer to you, the manager.

Now, let me address the other part of your question, the part about how you should respond. When someone is sharing intimate details with us, we have to step back and ask, “Who is this person and what is my role in this situation?” Different responses are appropriate based on the seriousness of the sharing. For the person sharing details about counseling sessions with her husband, ask yourself, “How do I change this conversation into something that’s meaningful for both of us?” Then reply by acknowledging her sharing and move the conversation in a new direction.  It might sound like this: “Betty, I’m flattered you feel comfortable enough to share this with me. It is best if you talk the issue out with someone in your personal life. As your manager, I feel torn talking about deeply personal issues in your life.  Whenever there is something work related, I'd be happy to be helpful to you. How are things going with the project you were working on this morning?”

In the case of the employee bringing up the past trauma of a rape, you might say, “It sounds like you still have feelings that haven’t been dealt with around the experience.  Do you know of a counselor or therapist, someone who can help you deal with your feelings so they don’t undermine your emotional well being?” If you sense deep emotional pain or isolation, then please work with your employee to get the help he or she needs. Respond with something like this: “I see that you’re in pain.  I’d like you to talk with someone in HR about our employee assistance program. Here is the phone number and I will give you time to make the call.”

Thank you for your question, Brenda! You are gaining a deeper understanding of your own communication style and soon you will be creating meaningful conversations with your employees. If you want to do more to educate yourself and your staff about effective workplace interactions, contact me about creating a communication playbook for your team and conducting a high performing team retreat that will reveal each person's preferred communication style and motivators.

All the best,