Setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries can be complicated work whether you’re looking at personal or professional relationships. While you may need to divulge your height and weight for your doctor, you needn’t do so for a curious co-worker. Your loan officer requires exact numbers to define your debt to income ratio but your neighbor has no valid reason for requesting such details. So what do you do when others overstep by asking questions you don’t need or want to answer? Try one of the suggestions below to guide your way through these language landmines.

Give the Answer You Want to Give

Imagine the woman on the treadmill next to you at the gym asking how much you weigh. When someone asks such unexpected questions, it can throw you. Rather than clamming up, awkwardly exiting, or telling them off, consider giving the answer you want to give. In this case, you might try, “I’m getting healthier all the time,” or “Diet and exercise really help keep me strong,” or perhaps, “I’m right where I need to be.”

Flash the Caution Lights

What do you say when your new hourly hire asks how much you, the business owner, make? Of course you could cite a number, tell them to get back to stocking the shelves, or shut them down with “A whole lot more than you!” Or, you could use the opportunity to introduce them to your boundaries.  One good approach is to give them a bit of information and also indicate that they are overstepping. Consider responding with, “I make a portion of the revenue our store brings in, why do you ask?”  Maybe a more general response such as, “I make a fair salary; what’s on your mind?” would work for you.  Or, “I started this business to be my own boss and that’s my biggest reward. What are you hoping to get out of your work here?”

Repeat and Redirect

While cringing is an appropriate response to a new colleague asking why you send your kids to daycare rather than staying home with them, you have other options. Start by repeating their over-reaching question and add on a redirection. It may sound like, “Why do I work and send my kids to daycare? What a personal question! Let’s take another pass at this PowerPoint.” You could also consider, “Why do my kids go to daycare? That’s a loaded question! How are you settling in to your new role?”

Sometimes inquiring minds are attempting to create a bond or sense of camaraderie with too-personal questions and, of course, there are others who use this technique as a weapon. In all cases, they are overstepping boundaries. Remember that you get to control what you share and how you share it. No one gets to demand the answers to private or sensitive questions without your consent.

Talk to you next week,

Amber D. Nelson


Cover of Amber Nelson's book, "Talk to Me"

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