How To Stop Being Viewed as the Office Chatterbox
Someone came to me recently, concerned that he might be getting the reputation of being an office gossip. The issue was less about him spreading rumors, and more about him becoming the go-to person that others went to when they wanted to vent or find out if he knew any “scoop”. He felt like he was in a difficult situation, as he wanted to be viewed as a trustworthy peer, and someone who is willing to help a colleague with advice on how to deal with difficult situations. Unfortunately, these interactions often drifted down paths that regularly started to sound more like bitch sessions than brainstorm sessions. I congratulated him on being someone his peers could trust and turn to for advice. I also gave him three guidelines to ensure that he gives the best direction, without crossing the line into office gossip.
ASSESS THE SITUATION
Set a timer, literally. As soon as you realize that someone has approached you with a problem, look at your watch and spend the next five minutes like a heat-seeking missile to determine the core issue. Ask direct questions to keep the conversation on point and get to the crux of the situation quickly. If someone can’t articulate a problem in less than five minutes, it’s clear that they either don’t have a solid grasp on the situation or are just looking to vent instead of looking for solutions. If they are really looking for help but can’t succinctly present the situation, encourage them to go back to their desk, gather their thoughts and come back when they’re better prepared.
To keep the conversation on point, once you understand the gist of the situation, say things like, “It sounds to me like this is really an issue with X, right?” If their emotions are getting in the way of determining the real issue, try something like, “I can see you’re really upset about this. Help me understand the core of the issue so I can see how I might be able to help.” Sometimes pointing out that someone is bringing emotion into the conversation causes them to take a step back, regroup, and articulate the problem from a business perspective, not a personal one. Keeping this conversation short and focused will train your peers to come prepared when they seek your advice and send the message that while you’re always happy to help, you’re too busy and uninterested in being a part of the gossip committee.
PICK YOUR APPROACH
Once you understand the big picture, quickly assess which of these three categories the conversation falls into: 1) There’s a real fire and we need to put it out immediately, 2) this is an issue that has happened before and/or will likely happen again unless we make changes to ensure a different outcome, or 3) this was an unfortunate, but one-time situation that will likely never happen again.
In the first scenario, give your best advice and roll up your sleeves to help fix the problem. Once the smoke clears, decide which of the second two scenarios best describes the situation. In the second scenario, prompt them to offer solutions before giving any directions. They have all the background information that you lack and are often in the best position to offer solutions. If they can’t come up with a complete answer, at least your advice can build on the general direction of their solution. This will avoid recommending something that is off base. For example, based on the limited information they’ve shared, you might be thinking the solution looks blue, but their recommendation looks red. When you’re that far apart, you either need to ask more questions before giving advice or assume they are better positioned to solve the issue. When the situation best matches scenario 3, use the “address and redirect” approach. Allow them a couple of minutes to get it off their chest, because we all need a sounding board from time to time, but then quickly acknowledge that, while the situation was annoying, these things happen to everybody and you just have to learn from them and move on.
GIVE THEM HOMEWORK
The best way to avoid being perceived as the person who always offers that compassionate ear or soft shoulder to cry on is to send them away with a follow up task, something they are responsible for doing as a result of your conversation. If it’s a problem with a co-worker, they either need to address the issue directly with that person or elevate it to management. If there is process breakdown that is causing problems, ask them to think about solutions and share with someone empowered to approve and implement change. Ask them to think about what they might do differently next time to change the outcome. When you send the message that coming to you for advice often ends with them leaving with homework, it makes the idea of venting to you less satisfying.
Avoid being the person that people turn to just to complain. If you’re sensing that you’ve been engaged in one of these conversations, address the situation head-on by saying something like, “I can see this has really gotten under your skin. Are you coming to me just to vent or do you need my help solving a problem?” This will force them to acknowledge their intent and if they have to admit that they just want to blow off steam, playfully tell them they have five minutes and when their time is up, tell them you hope they feel better and whenever possible, give them something to think about/do to make the conversation actionable. Recommend a book, suggest they speak to someone directly, help them set a goal, anything that ensures something positive can come from the discussion. You’d be surprised how often people start a conversation with the intent of venting, but when pressed, realize they actually need or already have a solution to the problem.
Practicing these techniques will help you to take control of your interactions when approached by your peers, but only you can control how much you share with your colleagues. We all need to vent from time to time. My advice to those who want to pursue leadership roles: vent outside the office. Share with your significant other, your sister, your best friend, but when it comes to your professional interactions, there are two questions you should ask yourself when engaging with your colleagues. First, “If someone in management was listening, would I be embarrassed about my conduct?” The second, “If someday I become this person’s boss, or they become mine, will I regret this conversation?” If the answer to either questions is “yes”, than it’s a conversation you shouldn’t be having. Gossip within an organization brings negative energy and dissatisfied team members, and can embed itself into company culture. The great news is that as quickly as it spreads, it can just as quickly be squashed, and we are each individually equipped with the power of choice in how we engage with our peers.