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:
- You recognize you have a social boundary that your boss is crossing.
- 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:
- Have a good intent.
- 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.