My friend Jane suggested the topic for today’s post. She wants to know how to handle the over-sharer. Great question; and one that gave me some pause to think. There are so many different forms of over-sharing and each has its own formula for how you should react. Let’s start by identifying the different reasons for over-sharing and then get into the remedies for each.
First, we have to agree on a definition of, “over-sharing?” Like so many aspects of communication, over-sharing is in the eye of the beholder. Let’s just agree that we’ll call it over-sharing anytime a colleague tells you things you don’t want to hear, particularly personal information that make you uncomfortable.
So, what’s causing your colleague to over-share?
Classify Your Over-sharer
You can classify your over-sharer into one or more of these groups.
Our most innocuous over-sharer is the one who just loves to be completely real. This person doesn’t see boundaries between work and personal life, or between colleagues and friends. He’s just giving you the running commentary of his issues, whether it’s last night’s dinner menu or today’s battle with a wicked case of athlete’s foot (as he pulls off his sock to show you). Our authentic over-sharer just wants to be seen for who he really is; with no facades or falsehoods.
If you’re dealing with an authentic over-sharer, be authentic back. The authentic person has natural born self-confidence, so you don’t have to be worried about damaging his ego. Just let him know how you’re reacting. “Let’s stick to the task at hand here, Frank,” or “Let’s establish one ground rule in our relationship, socks on at all times, okay?”
While our authentic over-sharers are often blissfully ignorant of how their transparency affects you, the attention seeking over-sharer knows exactly what they’re doing. Their over-sharing serves a purpose—to rope you in. They need your attention and they’ll go to extremes to get it. There are at least two different versions of the attention seeking over-sharer.
Attention Seeker #1: The Shocker
Our shocker wants you to think she’s cool and she’ll share her stories of weekend escapades and illicit behavior to make you believe it. This can be really uncomfortable if she’s sharing behaviour that makes you squeamish. It’s even worse if you start to become desensitized to her antics and she has to raise the stakes to get the same effect. You definitely want to put a stop to that before you’re hauled in as an accessory.
The secret with the attention seeker is to deny her your attention when she goes out of bounds. That removes her incentive for over-sharing inappropriate stories. You can do that by dropping your eye contact, looking at your phone, or excusing yourself to the washroom when she’s being an exhibitionist. You can also steer her toward more appropriate topics For example, if she’s in the middle of her waking up in Vegas story, ignore the fact that she didn’t know the name of the person she woke up with and instead ask, “Hey, what’s your favorite restaurant on the strip?”
While you’re depriving her of attention for her wild stories, start to pay more attention to her when she’s is on task or sharing stories that you do think are appropriate. Lavish her with eye contact and reinforcing questions every time she raises a topic that’s germane to work.
Attention Seeker #2: The Needy
The shocker is all bravado, but her close cousin the needy over-sharer tries to get your attention with sad, woe-is-me, tales. You hear all about his relationship drama, his terrible mistreatment at the hands of other colleagues, and his terrible strike-out rate on Tinder. He has a gaping void of self-confidence and confides in you because you provide a bottomless elixir of reassurance; reassurance that long-ago became completely inauthentic because you’re now convinced that he really is pathetic.
Again, attention seekers need to learn to get your attention in constructive ways and learn that they won’t get your attention if they continue to over-share. For needy over-sharers, I like to combine positive questions with dead silence. Something like, “Ok, I know you’re worried that you flubbed the presentation. What’s one thing you could do today to make up for it?” Then wait….say nothing!
If they start wallowing again, go back to your question, “I heard you that you’re anxious. What’s one thing you could do today to make up for the flubbed presentation?” If they have nothing, say, “Ok, I’m going to get back to my work. You come tell me when you’ve thought of an idea.”
Finally, there are over-sharers who are just socially awkward. They’re lost when it comes to making small talk and sometimes, they stray into territory that is normally off limits. Just to maximize the discomfort, socially awkward over-sharers are often also close-talkers and bad social-cue readers. The result is that you’re trapped with someone telling you things you don’t want to hear, saying them 6 inches too far into your personal space, and not taking the hint when you give them the old, “Anyway…I really should be going.”
With socially awkward over-sharers, the onus is on you to help them navigate the rules of polite society. Surprisingly, they’re usually grateful when you do. If they get onto an inappropriate topic, just say, “We’re in the office, let’s stick to talking about work.” If they invade your personal space, take the conversation to go. “Hey, I have to pick up something in the copy room, walk with me.” And if the conversation has gone on too long, just tell them. “Wow, we’ve been standing here for 5 minutes, I need to get back to work.” You’re doing the kind thing by helping the socially awkward over-sharer learn how to behave.
There are many reasons why people share stories and thoughts that are questionable topics for the workplace. You might classify them as over-sharing because you’re not interested, you’re offended or disgusted, or you’re just worried about wasting time. It’s your prerogative to limit non-work-related discussions. These techniques should help.