Shutting down unwanted personal questions at work requires finesse. We spend more time with our colleagues than we sometimes do with our own families, and those 2,000 hours of annual time can make colleagues feel entitled to knowing more about our lives, as nosy family members do.
My preferred tactical response of silence only seems to encourage the speaker to keep going. It’s hard when you can tell your colleague is genuinely trying to connect with you, like inquiring about your health after you’ve been ill. Directly telling them you don’t want to talk about it can hurt feelings and damage working relationships.
I was first introduced to a solution beyond silence or ending a conversation at the Cancer and Careers National Conference. There I heard about a “swivel” technique coined by the organization’s executive director, Rebecca Nellis, that helps workers dealing with illness, whether their own or that of a loved one, deflect nosy questions without harm.
“It’s not just about swiveling away from nosy inquiries,” Nellis said. “It’s also about ― if it’s important to you ― continuing to be seen as the contributor and employee, and professional and leader, whatever your words are to describe yourself at work. It’s about reminding your workplace that you are still there to contribute in that way.”
“How are you feeling?”
The formula for the swivel is elastic. You acknowledge what the person is saying, showing appreciation and empathy, and then use “‘and’ statements, or ‘while’ statements, or an implied ‘and,’ and then a new topic,” said Nellis.
For example, you could counter inquiries about your health after a notable absence with a cheerful but pointed, “Really excited to be back!”
If you’re close with your colleague, you don’t have to always redirect the conversation back to the formality of work. “The swivel could be, ‘I’m feeling really excited to be back today and really focused on the fact that I have a meeting with so-and-so in an hour, and I’d love to pick your brain on the movies you’ve seen lately, because I’ve feel like I’ve missed a bunch and I need a list,’” Nellis said.
“Are you up for joining us in this meeting today?”
Keep in mind that there’s a fine line between a well-meaning inquiry about your feelings and discriminatory behavior that discounts your capabilities. If you are managing cancer, for example, the Americans With Disabilities Act limits how your employer can ask about your medical condition or require you to have a medical examination.
Your performance, after all, should be the best metric for whether you can do the job.
But if you need to remind your colleagues of your work ethic while also saying no to a request of your time, Nellis shared an example of an employee with a pile of paperwork to get through. When asked if they’re still up for a previously scheduled meeting, the employee can respond with, “‘I would so love to go to that meeting and hear what you guys are working on, but today I actually have these five things that I just have to power through, given that it’s only my second day back at work,’” Nellis said. “That’s not a formal swivel, but it is a positive response while saying no at the same time.”
In this way, you can professionally turn down a request while still showing that you are open and game for a task and exposure to new projects.
“My [X] had cancer ... ”
When your colleague uses your experience with a medical diagnosis as a chance to talk about their own experiences, it could be a well-meaning but clumsy attempt to connect with you. Maybe you don’t want to get vulnerable in that moment, or to this person. You don’t have to explain your reasons. You don’t owe people more information than you want to be giving, you just have to move the conversation onto surer ground.
Nellis said you can gently but firmly redirect their personal story with something like, “My goodness, I’m sure that must have been quite difficult and scary. Thank you for sharing that with me. And while we’re talking, I noticed that you were meeting with so-and-so on Thursday and I have something that needs to get in front of them, too. Can I give it to you?”
The first step is acknowledging the story your colleague has shared. And then you have to move on from it. “What you can’t do is end at, ‘That must have been quite difficult, I’m sorry you had go through that,’ period, because what you’re going to get after that is all the ways in which it was,” Nellis said.
“Appreciation, empathy, acknowledgment, all of those things are what make the swivel work and allow people to not feel like you’re just evading questions and allow the person doing it to feel empowered to do it because they’re not being negative, they’re being positive,” Nellis said.
These scenarios are specifically related to unwanted health inquiries, but once you master the swivel, you can see how it allows you to deftly steer away from any kind of unwanted conversations, all by offering a new piece of information for you and your colleague to talk about. Swivel away!