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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Setting Social Boundaries at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

My boss loves to talk and gets very personal when she does. I’m not comfortable hearing what she shares with me, nor do I have the time for it. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate and respect her, but she derails the entire team with her chattiness. She frequently interrupts me while I’m working to chat about her personal life, weekend plans, and so on. I often end up working at home until midnight just to complete what I should have been able to complete at the office. How can I address this with her?

Seeking Social Boundaries

Dear Seeking Social Boundaries,

Do you work for me?

I ask that with a bit of a chagrined smile because I am 99.9% sure you don’t. But, when I read your question, I had a prick of self-consciousness as I reflected on the many, many personal conversations I have had with work colleagues, especially over the last two years. In an effort to connect with my coworkers across time and space and Zoom, I wonder if I have shared too much. It’s a good moment to recalibrate!

Enough about me, though. Let’s talk about you. First, great job on demonstrating two important things with your question:

  1. You recognize you have a social boundary that your boss is crossing.
  2. You understand that the path forward is to have a conversation.

Many people do the first (get frustrated by the behavior of another). Far fewer do the second (effectively address the situation through a conversation).

Here are three skills to help you have this conversation.

Refuse the Fool’s Choice

You’ve already done this, so feel free to skip ahead. But please pay attention if you’re reading and thinking, “No way! Can you have this kind of a conversation with your boss?”

It can be scary to raise a concern with someone in a position of power or authority. Why? Because we worry that what we say will make the other person feel defensive, criticized, and maybe even attacked. And we have enough life experience to know that when someone feels attacked, they may attack back. Our managers, with their positional power, can have a big impact on our lives, so it is rational to want to stay in their good graces. Calling out their behavior, we are convinced, is the opposite of staying in their good graces.

This is the point at which we make a fool’s choice. I can either speak up or stay in her good graces. I can’t do both. There is no way to be both honest and respectful, both candid and kind, right?

Wrong! That thinking is a false choice. Of course you can be both honest and kind. In fact, being honest is kind. Being candid is respectful. So, refuse the fool’s choice and accept that the way to resolution is through conversation.

Make it Safe

If your concern is that your boss might feel unsafe and become defensive, you need to plan to make it safe. Psychological safety in a conversation comes down to one thing: intent. Why will she think you are having this conversation with her?

The phrasing of my question is deliberate. Safety is not determined by your intent, but by the other person’s perception of your intent. Because of that, you need to do two things:

  1. Have a good intent.
  2. Share your good intent.

To check your own intent, ask yourself: Why I am talking about this? What do I really want out of this conversation? From your question, I presume you want your boss to stop sharing all this personal information, to stop being as chatty as she is so that you can get your work done.

But don’t stop there. That is just your good intent for yourself. What about your good intent for her? What do you want her to gain from this conversation? Maybe that is:

I want my boss to know that she can trust me to speak up when I have a concern.

And what do you want for the relationship?

I want us to be able to work well together. I want us to be able to be candid with each other.

Once you have gotten clear on your good intent, you need to share it. Out loud. With words.

The thing that will create safety for her in that conversation is to start by sharing your good intent. It might sound like:

“Hey, there is something I want to talk to you about. I have a small concern and I wanted to address it with you before it gets any bigger, so that that we can be successful together.”

However you express yourself, you need to find a way to both have good intent and then share it.

Describe Your Experience

Once you have laid a foundation of good intent, build on this by clearly and concisely sharing what you are experiencing. For most of us, often out of nervousness, the instinct is to say too much. Don’t. In as few as sentences as possible, describe the problem. It might sound like:

“You are very personable, and I have noticed that you connect with people and build relationships by sharing what is going on in your life.

The downside of it is, for me, that I’m not getting my work done. I’m having to work late at night sometimes just to finish. While I enjoy our conversations and I enjoy know you as a whole person, these conversations are taking me away from the focus that I’d like to have on my work.

My hope would be that we can find a way to continue to have a good, friendly, positive relationship and that I can protect my work time. I’d love to figure out something that works for both of us.”

Again, that’s an example of how I might approach this conversation. You need to find your own words to describe your experience. I’m confident that if you do, if you share that good intent, create the safe space for the conversation, and stay focused on your goals of a positive relationship with your boss and getting your work done during work hours, you’ll find your way through this conversation.


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

8 thoughts on “Setting Social Boundaries at Work”

  1. Tara Prakriya

    My script in this situation would be a bit different. I think it’s important to acknowledge the employee’s role in the current pattern of enabling, rather than conveying this as primarily something that the manager needs to change. I would do something like this:

    Since manager has already given “permission” to talk about personal things, when manager comes by:

    Employee pulls out phone and starts timer for 5 minutes

    Employee says
    “Hey! I just read “getting things done” because I found now that traffic has returned and life gets compressed again, I have to be much more deliberate about my time allocations. I realized I wasn’t actually getting enough work done at work which caused spillover at home which is causing all sorts of stress with my family which is making us all a little short tempered with each other.

    So, I’m going to make sure I get major blocks of focussed time at work. It’s going to mean that I will need your help to timebox our chitchat. What do you think? Timer of 5 minutes on non work related stuff with anyone? My idea is to be really hyper focused on discipline until my habit changes”

    Manager responds
    “Oh! That sounds intriguing! So you mean like actually pull out a timer?”

    Employee responds
    “Yup. Totally an artificial construct to start, but I need an external prompt or I don’t judge how much time has passed and then the crazy cycle of not getting enough work done at work starts again!”


    What do you think? Would this be effective?

    1. Erik

      Sounds good if they actually read that book and that script was sincere. Otherwise it seems off.

  2. Renee

    These are interesting ideas. I have this issue with co-workers. We work in cubicles, and it’s easy for someone to pop their head over the side to just say “hi” and then start a long conversation. I’d like to share a couple things I do to help limit interruptions. If I’m on my computer, I turn my head without changing my body position, say “Hi!” with a smile, and turn back to my screen. If they try to start a conversation, I let them know I’m working on a project that really needs my attention. If they really want to talk, I offer to take a walk with them on my next break. For those times I don’t want to be inturrupted, I have a sign that says “teleconference in progress” on one side and “working on a rush job” on the other. I post the sign at my cubicle entrance, put my headphones on and turn on some music so I’m not easily distracted. I can’t bring myself to tell people I find their chitchat distracting because I do like visiting with them but only on my breaks.

  3. Nancy

    This is a very enlightening article. I can see there can be a fine line in defining your intent for the other person. It is probably easy to trick ourselves into thinking we are sincere in coming up with a good intent for them, but really it’s contrived to make us feel good. It’s a good reminder to really spend some time thinking about it and trying to find an honest good intention for the other person before moving forward with the conversation. For me, I am thinking that simply this reminder to do that will help open the heart to finding goodwill and holding that good intention. Thanks so much for this.

  4. Dr. Dennis O'Grady

    Emily-What a caring, thoughtful, and communicative way forward you’ve described about a highly sensitive matter. As a psychologist, a frequent complaint is about the friend/family member/parent/sibling who talks “too much” and doesn’t pick up on the social cues to ease up. Rarely, if ever, are they provided the good growth feedback that you are advising. Well done!

  5. Teresa

    Follow-up question: What if the oversharing weren’t taking up so much time it influenced productivity? What if it was just uncomfortable that the person’s boss was sharing too much about her personal life?

    That does seem like a problem — a manager forcing employees to listen to more personal information than they would ever share with her/him themselves feels like an abuse of power.

    Although it would be somewhat more tolerable if it didn’t influence my ability to do my job, I would be uncomfortable in that position anyway.

    1. Teresa


  6. Thomas

    I really like the concept of good intent for both parties, and it’s learning by doing. Related to the entry phrase, I would avoid generalizing, I would focus on my personal experience, instead.

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