Dear Crucial Skills,
What do you do when your supervisor moves a conversation into areas that you feel are none of your supervisor’s business?
One day, my supervisor was looking at real estate online when I went into her office for a meeting. She joked about finding a house for me but then actually started searching. I told her I can’t afford to buy a house near work but she wanted to know maximums. Only after I very tersely reiterated that it’s not possible on my salary did she return to work-related issues, though she seemed hurt. I know she means well, but I’m not her daughter. This has happened on several occasions related to my home life and medical issues. How do I get her to understand that my personal life is none of her business?
Dear Seeking Privacy,
I am sure many readers can identify with situations where someone who is more powerful seems to pry into areas that he or she shouldn’t be exploring. As I share some options for dealing with this crucial conversation, I’ll cover three areas: 1) what should we notice first about ourselves; 2) how to begin the conversation; and 3) how to consider the other person’s reactions so we can better prepare ourselves to engage in these conversations.
1) Work on me first. The first issue is always with yourself. I can’t help but notice your frustration and anger and it is clear this problem has been going on for awhile. Here’s a rule of thumb: when that little voice in your head won’t go away or when you feel yourself acting it out instead of talking it out or when you face the same recurring issue, there is a conversation you need to hold but are avoiding. Pay attention to these personal cues so you can speak up early and avoid doing permanent damage to an otherwise healthy relationship.
It seems that you’ve asked the humanizing question: Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this? But you’ve also voiced some harsh responses like, “I’m not her daughter,” or “It’s none of her business.” Based on these responses, I’m not sure you really do believe that she means well. So remember to work on yourself first and catch issues early.
2) Talk about the right issue. The specifics deal with housing and medical issues. But the real issue is your boss’s asking about or involving herself in personal issues. Clearly, there is a pattern here, and clearly it is affecting your working relationship. In starting your crucial conversation, fight the urge to begin with your conclusions and emotions and instead make it safe by beginning with an observation and a question. For example, “Could we talk about something I’ve noticed that seems to be a pattern? On three occasions you’ve initiated steps to find me housing closer to work and to increase my medical coverage. These issues are not related to work and I’m not sure why you continue to bring them up. I’d like to talk about this because it’s making me uncomfortable. Could you help me understand?”
There are many words you could use, but the point is to lead with safety and with observations and questions about the right issue—in this case a pattern.
3) Consider your boss’s response. Many people avoid holding uncomfortable conversations because they anticipate the worst possible reactions. They think thoughts like, “my boss will get angry,” or “my boss will get his or her feelings hurt,” or “I’ll lose my job.” These are all possible outcomes, but before jumping to conclusions, consider three categories of responses.
1) The other person will get angry. When you consider that your boss is a reasonable, rational person who obviously cares about you and your needs, this is probably the least likely response. However, if your boss does get angry, practice your Explore Others’ Paths skills on how to deal with emotions.
2) The other person will agree to not bring up these issues but violate the promise and bring them up down the road. This is likely to happen, and when it does, review your CPR skills. In this instance, you would need to have a conversation with your boss regarding your relationship.
3) The other person will agree and never bring the issue up again. Often, this is the most likely and most overlooked response. Again, when you consider that your boss is reasonable, rational, and caring, and most likely, doesn’t realize that what she is doing is offensive and harmful, she will stop prying as soon as she knows it makes you uncomfortable.
How should considering these responses affect our initial actions? It helps us not to avoid a crucial conversation. Many more positive outcomes exist than the few negative ones we automatically assume. And, in the event there is a negative reaction, we also have the skills to deal with them appropriately.