In today's business world, the line between professional and personal is often fuzzy--sometimes nonexistent. Even so, there may be times when a client either wants to know too much about your private life or tells you more than you want to know about theirs. The best way to deal with this situation is to carefully redirect the conversation, says Jan Gullette, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in private practice in Seattle.
It also helps to figure out what the motivation behind someone's too-personal comment might be. Often, Gullette says, people ask questions to avoid disclosing information about themselves. Or it may be just the opposite--they're asking a question as a way to introduce the topic. "If something comes up out of the blue, stop and consider there might be something they want to tell you," she says.
"People [sometimes] ask you things about yourself that they want to discuss about themselves," Gullette says. "Direct it back to them in a soft way so they don't feel on the spot." For example, she says, if someone asks you how you'd handle a specific situation with your children and you don't want to answer, turn it around by saying, "Oh, do you have children? Tell me about them."
When clients spill too much, Gullette suggests saying something like, "I don't think you want to be telling me this--it might make you uncomfortable later on. I'm sorry you're having to experience it, but I wonder if there's somebody better for you to talk to about it, perhaps a close friend or someone in your family." This lets you show some compassion while turning the discussion back to business.
"Most people act out of their own insecurities, so if you make them feel more uncomfortable and insecure, you're not going to be making the conversation productive," Gullette says. Whether they're telling you too much or asking you personal questions, you need to focus what you say on the inappropriateness of the topic, not the other person or your own feelings. Rather than saying, "That question makes me feel uncomfortable," it's better to say, "I really don't want to talk about this," and then redirect the conversation. When you talk about your feelings or about what the other person is doing, you make the situation more personal, Gullette explains. Keeping client discussions limited to business-related matters is more professional, as is changing the subject without casting blame.
Jacquelyn Lynn left the corporate world more than 12 years ago and has been writing about business and management issues from her home office in Winter Park, Florida, ever since.