How to answer intrusive questions at work

Most of us have a professional persona which may be slightly different from the personal persona we adopt with our friends and family.

Although the boundaries between professional and personal have become increasingly blurred since the advent of social media, there may be a number of things which we still want to keep private and may not want to divulge to our colleagues.

From time to time, however, we may find ourselves on the receiving end of an intrusive question from a well-meaning or downright nosey colleague. What’s the best way to deal with such questions?

Know that sharing is caring

Laura Haycock, business psychologist at Pearn Kandola occupational and business psychology firm, says being too guarded can make it hard for people to get to know you and can, as a result, make them like and trust you less. “Sharing something of your own experience and life outside of work can be a good way to build rapport, along with showing an interest in the other person’s life and experiences,” she notes. “By understanding what motivates you or what you might be dealing with in your home life, your colleagues are in a better position to find effective ways of working with you.”

Define what you think is and isn’t acceptable

It’s important to set your own boundaries and decide what you think is and is not acceptable and what you are comfortable talking about. Aisha Oakley, head of HR and consultancy at Bradfield HR, says these are usually questions that are linked to personal information that you do not wish to share. “Sometimes these questions can be discriminatory, for example – asking how old you are or whether you have children (potential age discrimination or indirect sex discrimination),” says Oakley. “My advice would be to politely ask the relevance of that particular question in relation to the role you are doing.”

Honesty is the best policy

Being honest and open can often be the best policy when it comes to dealing with awkward or unwanted questions as it will stop that person asking you again in the future. “Simply explain your position,” Haycock advises. “It is perfectly okay just to say ‘Do you mind if we don’t talk about that? I would rather not. Thank you. Or ‘I know you are only showing interest but I am actually not comfortable talking about it. Can we change the subject?’”

Deflect to protect

You could try completely changing the subject, such as talking about the weather or what you’re having for lunch today (two favourite British subjects.) “Either change the subject or turn attention back onto the other person by asking them what their own experience has been in the subject of interest,” Haycock notes.

Be economical with the truth

You could also try giving them a truthful but carefully edited version. “If you regularly get asked about the same personal issues, then why not rehearse a simplified answer that will satisfy others without revealing too much,” Haycock advises.

Make a joke out of it

Making light of something or using humour can also be a very effective way of avoiding answering something that causes you embarrassment. It might be worth thinking of a jokey response or a pun or two you can use about anything that you feel awkward discussing. If you’re being asked, say, about your relationship status and it’s something you currently don’t want to discuss. You could say something along the lines of if being summed up by the Facebook status of ‘it’s complicated.’

Stay schtum

If all else fails, never underestimate the power of silence. It will probably make the person asking the question feel a bit silly and awkward if you stay quiet and could give you the edge if you remain calm and collected.

Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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