The distinction between personal and private

A bit of vulnerability can sometimes go a long way. Get our tips on what you can share with your team when you are going through a difficult situation.

Steffan Surdek
March 25, 2024
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There is something I see often in my work with organizations. People struggle with a difficult situation, but they hesitate to speak about it with their teams.

A question I get often is: What is OK and what makes sense to communicate about this situation with colleagues in a professional setting? Sometimes you may hold back because you are not sure what is appropriate. You may also want to avoid other people getting in your business, or you may want to avoid oversharing. So what do you do? You say nothing.

The thing is when you stay silent, people may still notice something is going on with you. This leaves a big question mark for people. It leaves a void that needs to be filled, so people fill it with assumptions. These can lead to misunderstandings between team members. They can also create conversational debt within your team.

In this article, I will offer you a way to think about what you could share in the workplace and how. The key thing to consider to help in these situations is the distinction between personal and private.

What it means to share personal information

Sharing personal information is about giving enough high-level information to a colleague or friend to let them know something is happening in your life, without going into excessive detail, or even explicitly naming what is happening.

Let's say for example that you are currently going through a divorce with your spouse. This is causing you to be more distracted at work. You are falling behind on some of your deliverables.

One way to communicate this would be to talk to your boss and say something like this : "Look, I'm experiencing a situation at home right now and it's not going well. This is why I seem a little bit off these days. I don't want to go into details, but it should get better in the next few weeks. I just wanted you to be aware."

Sharing this level of information is just enough to let your boss know something is going on, without going into too much detail. It may also help you talk about the situation in a less emotional way.

It may be uncomfortable, but at the same time it is useful for your team or your boss to know that you are experiencing a difficult situation in your life. It allows you to explain just enough to help the other person understand why there is a potential visible change of behaviour on your part. This is also part of what it means to be a vulnerable leader.

You may wonder if this will bring on additional questions. If this is the case, at that point you can always answer: "I'm not comfortable going into more details right now."

What it means to share private information

Sharing private information is about openly volunteering more intimate details about the same situation. Have you ever had that squeamish feeling of "TMI" — when someone gives you "too much information" about their life?

Most of the time, people do not need to know that deeper level of private information unless it gets really critical.

Going back to our example of the divorce, sharing that on a private level could look something like this: "My wife is leaving me, and we're arguing a lot. It hasn't been easy on the kids, as they are seeing all of this and worrying about what will happen. I'm pretty stressed out, but it should be better after we meet with the mediator in three weeks."

As you can see, the level of information provided is very different. At this level, the discussion includes emotional struggles, financial or legal troubles, etc.

It could also mean becoming overly emotional, or oversharing your thoughts and opinions about what you are going through with your team. This is often unnecessary on top of potentially making them uncomfortable. After all, some people may feel you are dumping your emotional baggage on them and they may get that "TMI" feeling.

There are times you may go to this level because you are overwhelmed and you need someone to listen to you. It is not that it is wrong to share this type of information at work. What I want to illustrate is that you have a choice.

Sometimes sharing personal information instead of private is all you need to do to keep people informed and aware.

How do I choose what to share in the workplace?

Some people are naturally more open about their private lives, while others may be more reserved and prefer to keep certain matters confidential. Although you may be comfortable openly broadcasting private details, here is a general rule of thumb.

You do not need to go into the private realm, unless you are speaking to someone who you highly trust.

It is all about finding that right level of sharing that gives people a high-level understanding of what is happening. When in doubt, ask for permission and if it is a good time before delving into potentially private topics. This shows respect for the other person's boundaries and time.


In our professional lives, we end up spending so much time with colleagues. For some people, they become a second family. There is a lot to be said about the importance of communication and authenticity at work.

Having a personal bond with your team and sharing some of your personal life is healthy. However, you may have to draw a line when you are going through a difficult situation in your life.

A parting word of advice I would give you: It is OK to keep what you share on a personal level! You do not need to go into excessive detail with people who are not close to you.

What is one thing you could be vulnerable about with your team while keeping it on a personal level?

Are you ready to elevate your leadership to the next level?

If you're looking to transform your team's dynamics, enhance collaboration, or reduce conversational debt, I'm here to guide you. With over a decade of experience in leadership coaching, I've dedicated my career to helping executives and management teams unlock their full potential. My approach is centered around the concept of Co-Creative Leadership, focusing on fostering a culture of collaboration and action-oriented learning.

Contact me for a consultation, visit our Coaching page to learn more about my services, and check out my Speaking page to explore how I can inspire your audience with one of my talks.