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Set Boundaries With a Too-Friendly Colleague

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: I have a colleague who is just too friendly for my taste. I don’t want to be rude, but how can I get her to stop asking me personal questions or telling me all her problems?

A: This is one of those tricky situations where you have to walk a fine line between being a coworker and a friend. I’m sure you’re a perfectly nice person, but you need to set some boundaries so that your colleague knows that you are a warm and friendly coworker but you are not best buddies.

Be firm with her but always polite. When she starts in on a story about her problems with her new boyfriend, say, “I’m sorry to stop you, but I am on a conference call in two minutes and need to find my notes”—or give some other believable excuse. Go back to your work area and close the door (if you have one). Stay busy so that your coworker gets the hint that you don’t have time to either share your secrets or listen to hers.

Keep your personal life to yourself. If you share too much, you open the door for others to do the same.

If you can’t evade a personal conversation, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not comfortable discussing that.” Say it with a smile and turn the conversation back to work.

Some people don’t understand subtle social cues and continue on until you’re left with no choice but to say, “Please stop—I’ve told you I don’t want to talk about it.” Say it with conviction, and most people will finally get the hint and drop the subject.

Remember that someone else can’t get too personal unless you allow it. Keep your personal life to yourself. If you share too much, you open the door for others to do the same.

Odds are that if you’re having this problem with a coworker, others are as well. You might suggest to your manager that setting boundaries at work would be a good topic for a staff meeting. If your manager agrees, you may be the office hero for bringing it up.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you'd like her to answer in "Ask the Expert"? Send it to [email protected]

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