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I have this client that really likes to have some personal conversation during our 'work' calls ( I work as a freelancer). I've obliged and shared some personal thoughts/talks as well to appear polite. I thought it's no big deal even though I felt drained a lot of the time (I have to pretend often that I'm interested or enthused because he's always saying something to try to get a more upbeat response from me like he wants me to appear chipper).

Now more than a year later, I realized I can't stand this person. Not that he's horrible, but I really don't care about him enough to engage a convo at a more personal level on a regular basis. He also seems to need to talk to me more now as if I'm a very close friend that he can talk to about all sorts of mindless stuff during or supposedly work calls. How should I go on working with him while maintaining bit more personal distance despite what's been shared already? Thanks.

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    How do you bill your work with him? Do you have a chance to make those extended calls visible on your bill so he can identify them as a good way to save money?
    – puck
    Aug 16 '20 at 7:23
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    @puck Or to go even further, can the OP say something like "hey, nice chatting but I don't want to run up your bill" during the call?
    – DaveG
    Aug 16 '20 at 15:49
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    @puck I think he's aware of the extended time charged and doesn't care. I honestly felt that he's got this increasing need to have someone to talk to out of loneliness. Dave G - that's good, though I don't want to give him the chance to say 'then turn off the clock' lol
    – adriooo
    Aug 16 '20 at 19:51
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    Can you include whether you've already tried anything to create a bit more distance, and how that has (not) worked out for you? So that answers can take that into account, and won't write suggestions that you've already tried? Also, what is 'normal' workplace culture around there, are we helping you build distance in a place where such distance isn't the norm, or is this client breaking the norm by not respecting a 'normal' distance?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Aug 17 '20 at 6:20
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    @Tinkeringbell I freelance, and we skype due to long distance. I tried to be more reserved last time we talked, and he was asking if I'm ok. I'm not sure how he interpreted that afterwards. I've worked with a lot of people in this type of setup, but with someone that likes to share so much personal details really is a first - I wouldn't call that normal.
    – adriooo
    Aug 17 '20 at 18:40
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I've worked with people who do this - it takes time from meetings, decision-making, and just getting work accomplished.

A lot of this depends on the person on the other end and how willing they are to accept your desire to remain professional. If they are more willing, it's not too hard to, when things get personal, say something like "Interesting! Can we put that aside for a little bit; I've got some business I need to chat about." Then handle business and at the end, do personal chitchat and at some point break it up with, 'Well, this has been fascinating, but I need to be off to work on your project.' I've found that works well with the folks I work with internally - it helps me still maintain rapport but also keeps discussions focused.

In meetings, where there are more people, I've been more direct, even coming to the point of saying, "Back to the agenda..." or "Let's chat about that offline; we've got others In the meeting for whom I'd like to use their time appropriately."

Obviously with clients, we need to ensure that we keep the relationship going because so much of sales is building and maintaining the relationship. That's where I'd suggest managing the discussion like I do above - be professional and warm, but also businesslike. After a minute or two, something along the lines of "Well, (chuckle) I'm sure you don't want to pay me to chat for too long; I'm going to get back on the project. We'll talk again at [next meeting]"

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I've been the client who felt things were too one-sided so that I tried to get the personal story of the professional I was with. I've been told things like:

  • This is about you.
  • We're here to hear what you've got to say.
  • This has nothing to do with what I think. Tell me what you think.

Eventually the message came through to me that they were not going to share their beliefs, values, opinions, judgments, nothing! This really was all about me, myself, and I. However, they had a limited time frame. I knew what that time frame was, and I learned through hard experience that if I spent that time talking about stuff that wasn't important to me personally--if I wandered off-topic in small talk, then that was my loss. I learned to prioritize.

But your client is used to lax boundaries. Changing things now will be tricky but not impossible. I remember some teacher or employer of my past announcing that the situation had changed and expectations were changing with it. Tell the client whatever you want re how you came to your decision on setting boundaries but here's one suggestion. At the beginning of your next meeting (on Skype or in person), after greetings are over but before business starts, say something like this:

I realize we have been sharing a lot of personal stuff in the past but we may have to change that. Business has really picked up and I can no longer spend so much time with one person. From now on we'll have to focus more on business. If there's something happening in your life that you think I should know about, by all means tell me but then we need to focus on business. I have one hour for you [or whatever time frame you think is reasonable].

It will be your privilege to be flexible if the need arises but not so flexible that the client thinks you didn't mean it. If you deviate from the stated schedule or terms, inform the client of the reason so there is no confusion, anxiety, or insecurity. That will allow the client to prepare mentally and emotionally for the next meeting.

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Breaking (and creating) rapport

I studied NLP to master's level. (see edit)

My guess is that you are naturally good at creating rapport but don't have skill in breaking it. If you master that then you can do it subtly without causing offence.

I have successfully used the technique many times based on my studies of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic-Programming). You can create and break rapport multiple times in the same conversation in order to take charge of its direction and length. If you do it right the other person won't even notice.

You can search online for "creating and breaking rapport". The first result I found looks ideal for your case. Here it is:

There are times when breaking rapport is crucial. Some people get so good at creating rapport with others that conversation flows too fluently and they forget how to bring it to a close. So they end up listening to story after story, or hearing more detailed information than they ever needed to know. Either they are afraid to offend by disengaging or they don’t know how to finish an interaction gracefully. Time gets wasted. Appointments or meetings over-run. Work doesn’t get done. Irritation and boredom step in. Then people risk having to break off quite abruptly, which causes bad feelings.

https://www.alchemyassistant.com/topics/dDcEeUSf6yaenqzD.html

I didn't vet the article for correctness and I suggest you read several to get a wider view. The point is that you can do it at many levels of subtlety. Perhaps the most obvious is to stifle a yawn every time the person strays off track. More subtle methods include rate of breathing and rate of speaking.


EDIT in response to thought-provoking comment by @Johanna

Although this does not address the question directly, I think it is valid for me to follow up on a comment that throws doubt on my answer. As someone who has an MSc in mathematics and computer science from a UK university, I applaud rational scepticism. I gave up religion as a child, because I tried praying and didn't get the results I hoped for. When I tried some simple NLP techniques, I did get the results so I decided to pursue it further. I use it only occasionally now - usually to simplify dealing with conflicts. I am not using it here.

NLP has never as far as I know made any claim to be a science in the sense of hypothesis testing. It is for me a purely pragmatic system which I personally have found to give useful results. I could provide many personal examples but this is not the place. For anyone who is sceptical there is a simple remedy - try it and see. When I referred to "master's level" I was careful to use lowercase to avoid confusion with "Master's level" which implies university study or its equivalent.

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    It should be noted that NLP is considered pseudoscience, which means that the statement "studied it to master's level" is utterly meaningless.
    – user141592
    Aug 20 '20 at 18:37
  • @Johanna - Thanks for your comment. I purposely used lowercase for "master's" . It is a common usage that doesn't imply science. There are yoga masters, kung fu masters, and so on. It simply reflects a level of study that is recognised within the discipline. Aug 20 '20 at 20:35
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    @chasly-reinstateMonica Thanks. I read that article you quoted.. it's mostly for in-person, but can still use some of the tips.
    – adriooo
    Aug 20 '20 at 20:37
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    @adriooo - You're welcome. Hope it works! Many NLP ideas can be adapted to circumstances. Aug 20 '20 at 21:18
  • This answer could be improved with a concrete example of what you mean by "breaking rapport" and how to apply it in OP's specific situation. You have listed a technique here, but essentially just said "google it/read this article", which means this answer doesn't really stand on its own.
    – Tesset
    Sep 28 '20 at 17:29

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