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Coworker’s Personal Life

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I would like to know how you would handle this situation. I work with two others in a front office, and although I have no formal authority, I do have more responsibility. One of the ladies is constantly talking about the minutia of her life, e.g., what groceries she bought, what she had for dinner, what doctor’s appointments she has, what her sugar and cholesterol levels are . . . She is also recently divorced, and in the process of purchasing a house for the first time. She is constantly (six times this morning) taking or making calls for personal business, and then telling us what her calls are for. She has been asked not to use her cell phone in the office due to distraction, and to just take personal calls during her lunch–so has gone outside the building to use the phone. I have tried a crucial conversation, but met with a defensive reaction.

What can I do?

Frustrated at Work

A Dear Frustrated,

This particular challenge—the other person violating expectations of what you do and don’t do at work—falls into the category of a crucial confrontation. This, as you might guess, we deal with in some detail in the book “Crucial Confrontations.” Let me share a few ideas from that book.

The first issue you face is choosing “What” and “If.” What is the problem you want to deal with, and should you actually bring it up? You stated that you have no authority over this person, but I will assume that the behaviors are troublesome enough that, independent of your formal authority, you want to talk about the issue. You’ve decided the “If”—you know you want to say something.

You’re still left with the “What” question. You’ve identified several different problems and you’ll need to decide which problem you want to confront. You can’t confront all of them at once without confusing the issues and looking like you’re piling it on. You also have to decide how touchy an issue you want to address. For instance, taking personal calls during business isn’t very touchy if there’s a policy in place already. Pointing out that the person is constantly bringing up irrelevant and possibly boring topics—well, that’s not such an easy issue to bring up.

To choose from among all your options, ask yourself what you really want. Which of the issues bugs you the most and do you end up talking about with your friends or loved ones? This is probably what you’ll need to discuss.

Start by asking for permission to discuss an issue that has you concerned. Explain your good intentions. Suggest that you want to work through an issue to both of your satisfaction. (And you have to mean this.) Use Contrasting. Suggest that you’re not trying to boss her around or anything, you simply want to jointly come to a resolution that you’ll both like. Then describe the gap. That is, explain what you’re observing versus what you expected. Describe what she’s doing, focusing on behaviors and leaving out your conclusions. Keep your tone pleasant. Pause and ask if she understands the issue or if she sees it differently.

How you start the confrontation sets the tone for the remainder of the interaction. To help with your tone, assume that your coworker is well intended but unaware and that your feedback might help the two of you work together. If you assume the worst of her, your negative conclusions will come out in your delivery. So start with good intentions, share them, focus on behavior and not conclusions, and then seek her view. All of this goes a long way in reducing defensiveness.

Best of luck and thanks for writing,

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Accountability. Learn more about Crucial Accountability.

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