Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Personal or Professional? Thoughts on Workplace Relationships

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m trying to establish a strictly professional working relationship with my supervisor. I like to have boundaries to limit my personal involvement, but my supervisor wants to have conversations about weekend plans, vacation updates, and so on. They also continually talk with me and my coworkers about their health challenges and medical details. This makes me uncomfortable. I’ve shared my feelings about their behavior, but things have not changed. How do I respectfully share my communication preferences?


Dear TMI,

The first thing you need to do is a gut check. Be sure you are fully aware of what you are asking for and the consequences of choosing it. The preferences you describe are reasonable. They just aren’t typical. It’s somewhat akin to asking your favorite fast-food place to not put mayonnaise on your sandwich and then asking them to remember you dislike mayonnaise for every future visit.

Most people use workplaces as a hunting ground for closer friendship. The norm, therefore, is progressive disclosure as a way of deepening relationships. People at most workplaces like mayonnaise. They’re used to making the workplace sandwich a certain way. And if someone comes along that wants it made differently from how most everyone else wants it, that person will need to understand that the burden is on them to help others navigate their unique preferences.

So, if you choose to try to create the social reality you prefer, you will be signing up for the following:


You are signing up for the responsibility of establishing and regularly maintaining your boundary. Don’t expect others to take to it immediately. And expect that you will need to periodically remind them of your preference.


You are choosing to surrender the right to feel resentful, judgmental, and mistreated when people forget your preference.


The only way to initiate this kind of boundary is with an uncomfortable and overt conversation with the colleagues most affected by it. Expect them to be surprised. They may also feel offended. That’s not a reason not to do it, it’s just important that you understand the emotions they might go through as they come to respect and accommodate your reality.

Your desire for more formal relationships may periodically cause you and others discomfort as people work through their own stories about why you want things this way. That’s their stuff—but you should be aware that by choosing this path, you are choosing that consequence as well.

I wish it were the case that we lived in a world where everyone would easily remember and respect others’ unique desires, but we don’t. Accommodation is an ongoing social process that puts a disproportionate burden on those who don’t want the mayo!


Finally, you are signing up to be in the “out group.” Much of what happens in the workplace happens through social serendipity. When people are at the water cooler talking about their sore knee or at lunch discussing vacation plans, a work-related issue will arise and those present will deliberate, discuss and sometimes resolve things. That’s how it is. By asking to be excluded from social niceties, you are choosing to be excluded from these predictable, frequent, and significant social processes.

Please know that my goal in saying all this is not to persuade you to make a different choice. It is simply to help you make an informed one. Should you choose to move ahead with more limited socializing, you’ll be properly prepared for the work and tradeoffs ahead.

Best wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

6 thoughts on “Personal or Professional? Thoughts on Workplace Relationships”

  1. Doug Lange

    I really enjoy your Crucial Skills blogs. I always have a few aha moments when I read them, and this one was no exception. Your’e helping me to become a better person all around. Thank you very much!

  2. C. P.

    Theres also a movement towards bringing our authentic selves to work, which includes life outside the office. So sometimes they aren’t asking out of friendship, but out of an effort to understand how people are the people that they are.

    What you’re asking isn’t unreasonable or unusual. I had a coworker who came into my work and was shocked by the amount of information our supervisor shared, and these were the tips I gave him about dealing with her:
    1. Share with our supervisor what your personal boundaries are.
    2. When she violates them (because its a matter of when, not if), remind her she may be comfortable sharing that information but that you aren’t as the receiver of that information. And you’ll likely have to repeat this for awhile before she gets the hang of it.
    3. When we’re asking about weekend plans, you don’t have to give the hour by hour schedule. Most people are happy with simple and general answers. “Cleaning the house”. “Hanging with the family.” “Leaving it open to relax.” If they press for follow-up, you don’t have to answer more, I sometimes throw in a “we’ll see where the weekend takes me.”
    4. If you’re comfortable in the moment, playing it off with humor can work well. “Whoa, hey, you’re sharing a bit much there!” “Just a reminder, I’m not a police interrogator” etc. can defuse a situation but not everyone is comfortable with that.
    5. With medical stuff, you have to listen for why they are sharing the information. Sometimes its for commonality, i.e. everyone has aches and pains, so they find a commonality with you. Other times it is because they want you to understand about them, i.e. because they have X condition, they may need to jump out of meetings to use the restroom more frequently and there’s nothing wrong with them. Depending on the situation and your level of comfort, you don’t have to reciprocate. in the first situation, a “I’m sorry to hear that, have you looked at today’s spreadsheet” kind of diversion can help without sharing a lot of detail. In the second, thank them for explaining and move on.

    I have a lot of respect for you wanting to hold boundaries. It takes time, but people do eventually get it. On our side of things, I want to say our work is on being polite but firm, and not being resentful when violations happen. In the beginning when I set boundaries like this, I was annoyed when people forgot them, but then I realized how much energy I was giving them instead of putting that energy into reinforcing my boundaries. Now people generally leave me alone and follow my lead with setting their own boundaries of what they are comfortable in talking about.

    In my personal case, I share a limited set of facts with the people I work with and I’ve found that works well for me – things that I want to talk about naturally (my dogs) and things that will come up in the workplace (a medical condition requiring a certain type of food) so that people know just enough about me and nothing more.

  3. Tina L

    An outstanding post. Thanks for highlighting the very real tradeoffs of opting out of personal sharing. I think that would hold true in my workplace. BTW, I’m an extrovert and love sharing and hearing personal information.

  4. L R

    I think this advice is spot on. Sometimes we don’t really think about the entirety of the situation we put ourselves in and it’s important to have the most amount of information we can to make the best decisions. Knowing the good and bad consequences are critical to making a decision that will meet our needs.

    As a manager, I try to not be intrusive, but it’s important to hear the likes and dislikes of my staff so that I can work in the background to mitigate some of the less desirable aspects of the working environment or push for things that I know interest my team. Without this, I’m stuck with very limited information to make the work environment healthier.

    I think it should also be noted, it is very common for people to be assessed on their ability to be a team player and likeability and these types of interactions are a natural way to convey something about you to others. Networking is critical and this is one of the easiest ways to do so.

  5. Devabrata Chakravarty

    Excellent article. By the way, I’m super extrovert but now will be careful with ones as I get to understand their perspective ought this article.

  6. malzon

    My work is so full of betrayal and crab mentality I completely shut out all personal conversations. It’s given me a welcome peace in a place I don’t want to be. Someone once gave me advise 10 years ago I never used to listened to: “There are no friends at work.” The chances of them using something personal against you to gain an advantage in the workplace is too high.

    The downside is I used to relish having fun, personal conversations at work and although missed, I realize how important boundaries are now. I am also much more productive not spending hours a day talking about nonsense and there is a significantly less chance of being attacked.

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