We know that emotional intelligence is an important workplace skill. But is it possible to be too good at listening?
Career expert Alison Green (aka Ask A Manager) helps this reader figure out the best way to push back on oversharing.
I have brought a burden upon myself, and I know it’s completely my own doing. I’ve been in my current role for a year and a half. In that time, I’ve become the de facto compassionate listener and person who coworkers turn to when they want to confide in someone.
My department consists of 25 people, and I don’t manage anyone. Everyone comes to me to vent about their personal and professional problems, stresses, and anxieties. Every week, I endure stories about fights with boyfriends, wives, and girlfriends, and drama about annual reviews, salaries, and promotions.
I’m very good at keeping secrets and I don’t ever offer solid advice, just lend a listening ear and support for when people are upset. That said, I’m seriously sick of performing this emotional labor for everyone when it’s not a mutually beneficial relationship. I don’t share these kinds of things with coworkers when I have issues. Playing therapist is costing me hours that I could spend at my desk doing work.
It happens at least daily. How do I set boundaries now when no one has any with me? It’s gotten to the point that my coworkers text me obsessively when I’m not at work to ask when I’ll be back at the office again, and I know it’s because they want to dump on me, not because they need anything work-related. Is there a way to distance myself without hurting feelings? Help!
Spread everyone’s secrets far and wide so they don’t want to confide in you anymore?
But seriously, I do think you can put a stop to this. I’d try a combination of a few things, depending on what feels the most comfortable in a given situation:
1. Be “too busy.” When people come to you for this kind of nonwork thing, immediately say, “Sorry, I can’t talk, I’ve got a big project” / “I’m on deadlines and can’t stop—sorry!” / “I’ve got to prepare for a call” / whatever other reasonable work-related excuse you can come up with. If you haven’t done this before, it might feel rude at first, but I promise you that this is a very, very normal thing to say, other people say it all the time, and your employer almost certainly expects you to manage your time in this way. (More on that last part in a minute.)
Bonus points if you can find one big project to point to—“I’m going to be swamped for the next few months with the teapot redesign and will need everyone to pretend I’m not here!”
2. Consider saying something about the bigger picture to people you feel comfortable saying it to. For example: “I know I’ve been able to spend a lot of time talking in recent months, but I’m realizing that it’s been impacting my work. I’m going to need to really rein it in and won’t be able to talk as much.” If you want, you could add, “I do enjoy talking with you and that makes it tougher, so I’d really appreciate if you can help me not get drawn in to nonwork topics for a while.”
3. Stop accepting the requests to get away from your desk. When people ask you to get coffee, go downstairs, or otherwise leave your office so that they can vent to you, say something like, “Oh, I can’t—I’m swamped. Is it time-sensitive?” If the response is, “Well, I’m really upset about this fight I had with Barnaby last night,” then you say, “Oh, I’m sorry—I don’t think I’ll be able to talk today / this week; I’ve got a bunch of deadlines I’m working on.”
4. Stop responding to texts outside of work hours and when you’re on vacation. Just stop entirely. When you get back, if they ask you about it, you can say, “Oh, I was ignoring everything from work while I was away,” or, “I didn’t have my phone turned on until I came back,” or, “Hmmm, I didn’t see it—was there a work emergency?”
5. Know that it’s going to take a while to retrain people. People will eventually get used to a different pattern, but this stuff gets ingrained and it’ll take a while. Don’t get discouraged if they keep it up for a while; keep setting and enforcing boundaries.
And brace yourself for the possibility that someone’s feelings might be hurt. It would be nice if you could avoid that entirely, but you can’t control how people feel; all you can do is act reasonably and hope others will do the same. And really, the best way to avoid hurt feelings is to be straightforward with people (see #2 above), so that they don’t mistakenly think you’re upset with them or you’re snubbing them. If you explain to them why you need to pull back, and they hold that against you, they’re the problem, not you.
6. Perhaps most importantly, reframe your thinking a bit. I suspect that you feel an obligation to listen to your coworkers and be a supportive presence for them (and that’s how this all started), so please keep in the forefront of your mind that you have a higher obligation to your employer to focus on your job. Unless your employer has specifically hired you to play office therapist, continuing to do it is shortchanging them. It’s also shortchanging yourself—you’re putting yourself in a position where you’re not going to be as productive as you otherwise would be, and that will have very real ramifications on future raises, project assignments, promotions, and your reputation.
If it helps, pretend to yourself that your boss told you that she noticed how much time you’re spending in these conversations with coworkers and asked you to stop. That’s something that really could happen at some point, so pretend that it already has, and take the actions that you’d take if it did (presumably the ones above).
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This article originally appeared on Ask A Manager and is reprinted with permission.