If I ever had a doubt that life has a funny sense of humor, I sure remembered it last week.
It happened on the day I flew into Colorado to give a presentation on networking – specifically, on how to talk to anybody at anytime.
It was the very same day that a few folks decided to talk to me about a whole lot more than I bargained for.
These people couldn’t wait to tell me all about their personal lives, their professional challenges…and whatever else happened to be going on. Tons of details, some of them uncomfortably personal, were hurled my way at rapid speed.
We all know people who have told us more about themselves than we need to know.
These people are engaging in TMI (Too Much Information for those not familiar with the phrase).
And on this day it happened three separate times, in three unexpected places. Which taught me three separate lessons on how to handle it.
Now, these lessons are different than the ones we covered in our recent discussion about when to interrupt people, which I covered in my blog How to Kill a Conversation.
These lessons are specific to the phenomenon of TMI, which brings a special set of challenges.
And now I get to share the lessons with you. Enjoy.
TMI Encounter #1: Bill and the Treadmill
My first encounter happened first thing in the morning. I was finishing up a quick workout on the treadmill before my flight when in walked Bill.
Bill and I had met once before, when he told me about his recent move into the building. This time around, however, Bill offered some extra information.
Here’s how it went:
Deirdre: Hey Bill…good to see you! How’s it going?
Bill: It’s great! I’m really loving it here. It’s like I’m starting a new chapter in my life.
Deirdre: What do you mean?
Bill: Well, I’m just about ready to leave my wife and start over.
Deirdre (hesitantly): Oh?
That was all it took. Bill spent the next half hour telling me how his wife didn’t know it was officially over…because he didn’t have the heart to tell her. He asked me how he should tell her. He asked when he should start dating again…and who he should date.
And that’s how I wound up spending a half hour playing love doctor for Bill – all while huffing and puffing on the treadmill.
TMI Encounter #1 Analysis:
TMI Level: High (very personal and a bit awkward.)
Annoyance Factor: Mild (while talking during the workout wasn’t ideal, I was able to finish things up on time.)
Lesson: Since it didn’t mess with my life or my schedule, I decided it was okay to engage in Bill’s TMI. I gave him my honest opinion, but reminded him I wasn’t a marriage counselor. Sometimes listening to other people’s personal stuff – as awkward as it might be – isn’t that big of a deal.
TMI Encounter #2: David and His 80 Hour Workweek
I arrived in Colorado a few hours later and excitedly met up with my colleagues, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years.
One of them was David, a great guy…who was also known for his TMI.
Here’s how it went when I arrived on the scene:
Deirdre: David…great to see you! How’s it going?
David (sighing heavily): Things are good, I’m just tired. These 80 hour workweeks are killing me.
Deirdre: Wow, sounds like things are pretty busy for you.
David: Yeah, let me tell you about this last week alone…
And so he did…in much detail.
At a time when I really wanted to catch up with several people before the meeting began, David went on and on about his overbearing boss…about the hundreds of emails in his inbox…about the fact that he was smoking again because of the stress.
(As an aside…have I mentioned how much I hate it when people complain about a constant 80 hour workweek? Does anybody really work 80 hours every week, and why this need to talk about it? If it’s really true, perhaps it’s time for some boundaries?)
After 10 minutes, and with just a few more to spare before the meeting was to begin, I used a quick pause in his monologue to say the following:
“Gosh David, I’m so glad we’re catching up…It’s just that I promised Cathy I’d check in with her before the meeting, so I need to find her. Hang in there, okay?”
David nodded, looking just a bit disappointed, and I made my escape.
TMI Encounter #2 Analysis:
TMI Level: Medium (not too personal, but there was a whole lot of it)
Annoyance Factor: Medium (I had a limited amount of time to catch up with people and this messed things up)
Lesson: I didn’t want to engage with David as long as I did, but I felt I needed to because of our relationship. There are times when we must endure TMI because the other person is important to us and/or our success. But…we don’t need to be trapped forever. Stick with it for a while, but find a graceful way to get out of it.
TMI Encounter #3: The Dreaded Middle Airplane Seat
The airplane gods weren’t looking out for me when they chose my seat for the flight home.
First, I got the dreaded middle seat. Never a good thing.
Even worse? I found myself wedged between two people who were into all kinds of TMI.
Here’s how it went as I sat down:
Deirdre: Hi there. Sorry if I elbow you guys while I settle in, but I promise not to fidget too much.
The guy on my right (smiling): No problem. I’ll just elbow you back!
The woman on my left (also smiling): Nice to have you in our row!
I smiled back. This pleasant tone was exactly what I needed. The travel, meeting and presentation had left me a bit drained, and all I wanted to do was shut my eyes and sleep on the flight home.
My seatmates had other plans. After brief introductions they immediately began volleying personal information. Turns out both had connections to super-secret, important jobs and lots of tales to tell.
It turned into a bizarre competition. At one point – I kid you not – they began swapping stories of surgeries they’d endured due to injuries on the job.
After about an hour I couldn’t take it anymore. And so I broke into the conversation to say the following:
“You know…you guys keep talking if you want, but I need to close my eyes. It’s been a long day and the motion of the plane is lulling me to sleep.”
There was a deep, heavy, uncomfortable pause. In the end they both decided it made sense for us all to take a break. No one said a word the rest of the time.
TMI Encounter #3 Analysis:
TMI Level: High (personal, competitive, and seemed to go on forever)
Annoyance Factor: Super, Duper High
Lesson: Knowing I wouldn’t see these people again and feeling like I was about to fall into a coma, I decided to take action. I was respectful, but also strong and explicit…knowing that I might offend but feeling like that would be okay. Sometimes you just can’t be Mr. Nice Guy.
The Final TMI Lesson…
If there’s anything these TMI lessons taught me, it’s that I never want to be the one who gives it. It’s just not a good way to build relationships.
This week…practice dealing with the personal friends, professional colleagues, and unexpected strangers who play the TMI game.
And make sure you’re not one of them.
Now, go do good…and do it well.