I’m sick of being the office therapist

A reader writes:

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. I’m a mid-level strategist and I report to a VP. Everyone comes to me to pull me aside and 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 good work.

It happens at least daily. Not all of my coworkers are offenders, just the majority. They will ask me to go get coffee, come downstairs, walk down to a neighboring hallway, etc.

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 during my PTO to demand 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?

Maybe not.

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 busy. When people come to you for this kind of non-work thing, say right up-front, “Sorry, I can’t talk, I’ve got a big project” / “I’m on deadlines and can’t stop — sorry!” / “I’m 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 non-work 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).

{ 133 comments… read them below }

  1. Adam V

    > pretend that your boss told you that she noticed how much time you’re spending in these conversations with coworkers and asked you to stop

    Exactly this. It’s a way of saying “it’s not me wanting to cut back, it’s my boss asking me to. You’re not going to complain to my boss that she won’t let me spend more time chit-chatting, are you?”

    1. TootsNYC

      I don’t know that I’d pretend that TO other people, though–that’s starting gossip about yourself that casts you in a negative light.
      Pretend it to yourself.

      To others, you can say, “I’m worried my boss will think I’m not being productive if she realizes how much time I spend…”

      1. T3k

        This. It sounds like a small enough office that, if the OP start telling others that it’s because her boss has noticed and wants her to stop chatting, word will eventually reach the boss and it could potentially backfire.

      2. 42

        Yeah that’s how I interpreted it to0 – ie, “What would you do if it were your boss who told you to knock it off?–treat it the same way”.

        Excellent way to get in the correct mind set for cutting off the supply. Good luck, OP.

      3. Lanya

        Unless your boss is cool with you using him/her as an excuse…in which case that would be a super convenient way to stop all of the therapy sessions pretty quickly.

    2. kms1025

      It actually would be completely honest to say “My time and attention has been diverted from my work way too much in the recent past. I’ve got to make a very concerted effort to focus on my work as that’s what I’m really here for. This is nothing personal, I hope you understand.”

  2. Not me

    This is great advice. I don’t have this problem at work, but I do fall into it with friends.

    Part of the “retraining” in number 5 may be an “extinction burst”: a tantrum or a big outburst of the behavior you’re trying to stop. It’s… pretty unpleasant… but it means they’ll change if you can wait out the outburst.

    1. Off today

      A coworker did this to me, and it was very effective. However, use with care. I wasn’t unloading excessively on the person that blew up, but was apparently one of a long succession of unloaders. Mine was the one that broke the camel’s back, though. He snapped. We don’t have a great working relationship anymore, unfortunately.

      1. The IT Manager

        Ummm, I think the extinction burst comes from person being retrained (ie you) in a last ditch effort to get things back to the way they were and not the person doing the retraining.

        In your situation, that guy just blew up at you inappropriately.

      2. Off today

        Darn, I misunderstood — in my case, the “office therapist” had the blowup/tantrum, not the “patient”! It still got the same result, though. The behavior stopped.

        1. Mephyle

          I believe an extinction burst isn’t a tantrum, but rather a ramping up of the behaviour in intensity/frequency – in this case an extinction burst by a therapy-seeker would be their seeking help more often or more insistently.

      3. Not me

        Really wouldn’t advise anyone to intentionally have that kind of meltdown!!

        What I mean is to tell OP that a coworker, when made to change their behavior, may have one last big blowout at OP before changing.

        1. mockingbird2081

          Only if you pull out your hair, as well while running…it adds even more of a dramatic flare.

      1. Lanya

        I have the same problem, OP. Even at grocery stores people will try to tell me their life story of woes. I don’t know why. My husband says I have a friendly face.

          1. fposte

            Well, and speaking as somebody else who gets this sometimes, I think people’s lives are often really interesting; I don’t always mind a lack of reciprocity if I’m getting a bit of a break from thinking and getting a little live-action audiobook going on.

            But a little goes a long way.

          2. fposte

            And a second thought–I don’t think this is anything about special radar, it’s that monologists start their monologues with just about everybody, and the people who don’t wrap ’em up and move ’em along are the ones who are left listening to them.

            1. neverjaunty

              That must be it. I have the opposite of a friendly face, and I get the ‘hi, let me tell you my life story’ from random people all the time. Granted, this is California, Land of Oversharing, but still.

              1. fposte

                It reminds me a little of the posts, like the one that just went up, where people getting a job offer don’t negotiate because the employer didn’t leave an opening for that. It can be a slow lesson to realize you are the boss of your own conversation/hiring discussion, and that if you’re not, the conversation is going to go the way the other person wants it to.

                I think also, with situations like this, people feel like your only avoidance possibility is right at the beginning, and that’s not true either. This is relevant for professional as well as personal stuff, in fact, and it’s something that I think is especially a tough lesson for women–you can redirect a monologue that isn’t using the time the way you want. I’ve outright said mid-flow “Stop–this is great information, but it’s too off-agenda for getting where we want by 2 today. Can you tell me more about the teapot die sourcing?” The personal version of that could be “Oh, I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop you there; I can’t take time away from the Sycamore project.”

                But you have to develop the skills to stop ’em. They get no reward from stopping, so if you let them keep going, they are going to roll on and on.

        1. Not me

          Whatever active listening skills we have, we need to turn off. :(

          P.S. If you know any actual therapists, ask them what happens when acquaintances find out they’re therapists. It’s this. Like a fire hose of this.

          1. Annonymoose

            Funnily enough, when people find out I’m a shrink they get that worried “you’re analyzing me” expression and don’t talk much after that!

      2. SanguineAspect

        This happens to me all the time. Most of the time, I actually don’t mind. I find people and their lives genuinely fascinating. It’s when it’s happening that isn’t convenient for me that’s the problem (like I’m trying to get somewhere, I’m at work, etc.).

      3. Kairi

        I once was at a friends house, and my friend was telling me a lengthy and boring life story. After he finished, his mother came up to me and said “you actually listen to everything he says? I’m impressed!”. I guess I have one of those personalities as well.

    2. Grad Student

      This happens with my roommate, even after we’ve had a few conversations about it, and even after I escape to my room the roommate will follow. Establishing and enforcing those boundaries is hard. Looking for a new place now

  3. Dasha

    #5 especially, give people a little time to get used to the new you. Fair or unfair, you have been the office therapist and if you completely stop all of sudden it might be like dumping a bucket of ice water on your relationships (unless you are OK with suddenly icy relationships?). I think Alison’s advice is solid, I would be patient and see this as something that will get better with a little bit of time and re-training.

    1. F.

      I would question whether these are true relationships or they are just using you. Be prepared for a possible gossipy, nasty backlash, even if the big blow-up does not occur. BTDT, been on the receiving end of the problem. Keep reminding yourself that boundaries are necessary and very healthy!

    2. 42

      Maybe a sign, “The Doctor is IN” a la Lucy, for when you’re weaning them down? No sign = Do Not disturb.

      (Kidding.)

        1. MsM

          Actually, on a more serious note, you might consider setting “office hours” when you’re available to chat, and make it clear that otherwise, you only want to be interrupted if it’s time-sensitive or directly related to something you’re collaborating on. One of my coworkers who would otherwise constantly have people dropping in to consult with him on various projects and never be able to get his own work done does this, and it seems to work out pretty well.

          Of course, it won’t address the part where people want to talk to you about personal rather than professional stuff, but I’ve come to agree with Carolyn Hax that “Wow, that sounds rough. So what do you plan to do about it?” can serve as a useful wake-up call to people that they need to do more than just dump on you. Also, I wonder if it would help for you to just be honest with people that you want to be supportive, but it’s gotten to the point where it’s become your job, and you can’t do that any more? They may not realize they’re not alone in making these demands on you. (And maybe wondering who else you’ve been talking to will prompt them to be a little more discreet.)

          1. fposte

            I think the office hours thing works great for work-related communications, but these are personal problems, so it would have the effect of normalizing the notion that the OP’s time should be devoted to listening to them when that’s really not what her time’s for.

            1. MsM

              True, but with the right framing, I think it might prompt people to think twice about whether they really need to be taking up her limited time, once they realize it is limited and she’s trying to focus.

              1. Not So NewReader

                “I am finding that Fridays are an easier day for me to chat with people. My week is winding down and I am cleaning up the last few tasks for the week. So Friday is a good day for me. Mostly, though I am concerned that the boss thinks I chat too much. Noo, he has not said anything, I just get a funny vibe. So, I am going to try harder not to be a Chatty Cathy/Charlie BEFORE the boss decides he has to say something to me.”

    3. Manders

      This is a good thing to keep in mind. I accidentally torched an office friendship by going from passively sitting and listening to shutting down TMI conversations. In retrospect, I still would have done the same thing in the end, but I should have taken longer to try to retrain the venter.

      Long-time venters or monologuers often don’t realize that the way they’re interacting with people isn’t normal, and it may be painful for them to learn that they’ve been a bore (and some of them will dig in and get defensive rather than trying to change).

      1. SevenSixOne

        “Long-time venters or monologuers often don’t realize that the way they’re interacting with people isn’t normal”

        … and often still don’t realize it or make any effort to change, even after people tell them point blank to stop.

      2. Dynamic Beige

        Ugh. Long-time venters and monologue-rs also don’t realise that they operate as a one-way street. They’re fine and happy with you so long as you act as a receptacle for their dumping but they are completely incapable of understanding that they leave you feeling worse and not looking forward to their return. Because it will be the same gripes over and over, they get to feel better — temporarily — but never really solve anything. They constantly look for new shoulders to lean on, new ears to bend for the same gripes. As soon as you want to talk to them about anything but their problems, suddenly they’re too busy/gotta go. Also, if Jane will complain about Sally to you, I would put money on it that she’s complaining about you to Sally.

        One of the worst jobs of my life was working for a woman who was like this. She simply would. not. shut. up. about all her problems/how this person had screwed her over and couldn’t be trusted/etc. It was exhausting.

        1. Not So NewReader

          And this is how I got cured of endlessly listening to people’s problems. Picture 20 plus years of “my spouse is an idiot”. Yeah, I was the idiot for letting this go on. If you go to the extreme and decide “yeah, your spouse is an idiot” the answer is the same as if the person had an okay spouse and the speaker was the actual problem: DEAL.

          When I finally decided to draw my line I did it by moving the conversation toward an action plan. “I am sorry to hear this. What do you think you can do to help ease this awkward situation?” Venters do not like to look for solutions. They don’t enjoy thinking about the problem actually being solved. When you talk in terms of an action plan, this is like spraying Venter Repellent in the air. It pushes the venters away.

          What happens next is interesting. You end up finding people who are actually interested in working toward a solution or some type of patch to ease the problem. And that is when conversations get truly interesting and you can learn a lot through other people.

          One tip if you go this route: Believe that people already know what they want to do to handle their problem. So, it is just up to you to ask some questions to draw that out of them. You don’t have to know the answer yourself. If they say they don’t know what to do, then just say, “Well, let’s talk about options. What options do you have here to chose from?”

  4. The Cosmic Avenger

    In addition to point #5, not only is it going to take a little time to retrain people, but for some self-absorbed people who have come to accept this as the status quo, there may be some indignation or outright hostility. No, it’s not a sure thing, and it’s not appropriate, but if this workplace is rife with issues, some of the coworkers might not respond appropriately to this.

    To be clear, the OP absolutely should follow Alison’s advice anyway. If you’re reading this, OP, I just mention the possibility because I want you to be prepared for some passive-aggressive hostility or maybe even a tantrum. And if you get any of those reactions, remind yourself that those people are the kind who really don’t deserve your sympathetic ear at all, much less at the expense of your work performance.

  5. Mr. Mike

    Not to say that this will happen, but I also wanted to point out that when we start limiting the behavior of other people, there is often a backlash in which the person(s) will press to keep the comfort level s/he has attained, which create more of the behavior before it slows down. In short, you may see some push back at first. It’s unconscious, so try not to take it personally. Your counselees don’t what to lose their go to counselor. As long as you stay consistent with your new established boundaries, the push back should decline and, hopefully, extinguish. If the pressure is too much and you go back to what you were doing, you may have a new marker that will make it even more difficult to deal with the next time. So, hold your boundaries, no matter what.

    1. Florida

      The key is to be consistent. People might say things like, “This will be quick.” The key is that you are trying to retrain people. You have to have a zero-tolerance policy until everyone learns the new way. It’s difficult and uncomfortable at first, but the results will be worth it.

    2. Not So NewReader

      A good way to think about this is to tell yourself that you are enabling them to stay in a sucky situation because they can dump it off on you and go get more crap. Which means this is an endless cycle and you will be endlessly dumped on. Decide to break the cycle.

  6. Buggy Crispino

    I would also make sure that if your phone/device/computer sends out a read receipt when they message you for advice, turn that feature OFF. Especially if it’s your personal device or there is no company policy or standard to have it on. They shouldn’t be able to tell that you’ve read their message (and had better things to do.) Even more so when you’re on vacation.

  7. The IT Manager

    I’m torn between this answer is so obvious and easy and how hard it will be to actually implement.

    LW says no time, and dumper says “this will only take a minute.” And since it’s a lot of people, each person sees themselves as only taking up a small bit of LW’s time and doesn’t realize how much it adds up.

    Good luck, LW. You will have to take a hard line saying no every time it happens. And I expect there will be hurt feelings. These people probably think of you as their friend even if they do not reciprocate and have shared intimate information with you so they will likely be hurt. This will take a while to retrain everyone, but it can be done. Somehow you inadvertently managed to train them that they could do this to you and now you’ve got to train it out of them.

    1. JMegan

      I think one of the things OP could add to the “too busy” messaging is something to the effect that lots of people talk to her like this, and she’s recently realized how much time it all adds up to. Make it clear to each of the therapy-seekers that they’re not the only ones using her like this, and that she’s cutting them *all* off, not just the one person she happens to be talking to.

      It’s still going to be uncomfortable for a while, but this way should help make it clear that it’s not personal. Good luck, OP!

      1. OP

        I struggle with how to communicate this without sounding arrogant, i.e. “Everyone needs me, I’m so important, blah blah.” I don’t actually feel that way but I do wish I had some quick and simple way of getting the message across that it’s happening repeatedly with other colleagues too.

        1. TL -

          You don’t have to be like, “everyone needs me!”
          You can try something like, “Oh, I realized how much time I spend chatting with other people and I’m trying to limit it to 15 minutes in the afternoon/morning/whatever, and Jane and Wakeen both already stopped by. Sorry – I really have to finish the reports by 5 today!”

          1. Squirrel

            That might then make the OP a hot commodity (if they aren’t also doing any of the other retraining suggestions), because now people have to “fight” for her time. They need to get there first because she runs out of time otherwise.

            1. fposte

              I’m torn, because my first response is to say “That’s fine, let ’em fight.” But I think you’re right that this ends up identifying this as an approved activity for some of the day in a way the LW really doesn’t want to do, and the way to avoid that is to keep things vague instead of identifying an acceptable window. So maybe just ““Oh, I realized how much time I spend chatting with other people and I’m cutting back. Sorry – I really have to finish the reports by 5 today!”

        2. NutellaNutterson

          The fact that you’re worried about it seeming arrogant most likely means that you will not seem arrogant. Don’t remove the boundary just because somebody pushes. Remember that boundaries are for you not them. It’s not about them, it’s about you needing to get your work done, and prioritize your life.

          1. SevenSixOne

            “The fact that you’re worried about it seeming arrogant most likely means that you will not seem arrogant. ”

            This is so true– as long as you’re self-aware enough to wonder whether your behavior might be a problem, it almost certainly isn’t.

    2. fposte

      “LW says no time, and dumper says ‘this will only take a minute.'”

      It doesn’t matter. You’re touching on a really important point here, which is that this isn’t up for debate, and that the LW should make sure she doesn’t succumb to accepting somebody framing it as if it is. Somebody says, “This will only take a minute,” LW says “I’m sorry; I have to get back to work.” And walks away, or turns back to the computer. Somebody starts talking about work stuff and segues into the personal, LW says, “I’m sorry–this sounds like we’ve moved on from work stuff and I have to get back to work.”

    3. Not Myself

      Don’t know if this is rude/impractical, but what about a visible ‘do not disturb -super busy!!!’ sign?

        1. Jaydee

          I made one. A sign, not a hat. It has a blank for me to write in the time when I will be available. I print it off, tape it to my door, and get to work. I was skeptical at first, but it totally works.

  8. Chrissi

    If you’re going to “retrain” how people treat you, in any part of your life, you have to be very consistent, at least during the “retraining phase”. But, the good news is, I’ve done this, and while there is a little bewilderment on their part at first because you’re changing things up unexpectedly (to them), in my experience, it doesn’t take as long as you think it will and it’s not as painful as I think you imagine it will be. You can do it!! Good Luck!!

  9. Smelly Pirate Hooker

    Out of curiosity, how did this all start? One person venting to you snowballed out of control? Is it your personality that attracts people needing to vent? Or did you, at some point, tell people that if they ever needed to vent they could come to you? Because someone did this at Firstjob, during orientation she made it clear that the company had no tolerance for negativity in the office and if we needed to vent we could pull her aside whenever. I never did because she didn’t seem like someone I’d feel comfortable discussing my personal or work-related problems with, but I wonder if people started to abuse that and I wonder if she ended up regretting offering that to people.

    1. Andrea

      This was my question, too. I think it might be worthwhile for OP to think about how this all started, because she may indeed be giving off some signals that seem to welcome this behavior in others or something, and in any case, she would want to think about how it began so that she can be more aware and actively prevent this situation in the future, in other settings/contexts. I don’t mean to make it sound like I blame the OP for starting this or allowing it or something, because that’s not it at all, and in fact, it sounds like she is a kind person and a good listener, and those are both great qualities.

      1. Manders

        I am one of those people who attracts people who need to vent, and it’s hard to pinpoint one specific behavior of mine that’s causing this to happen (if I knew what it was, I would stop it!). OP could try asking some people close to her if there’s anything about her that makes her seem particularly approachable, but she should be prepared for unhelpful responses like, “You just have an approachable face.”

        How I long for a case of Resting Bitch Face!

        1. fposte

          As somebody who falls into this myself, I don’t think it’s the approachability per se; it’s the failure to keep people to an inch when they’re starting to take a mile. If Jane says over lunch, “My husband and I are having trouble with the contractors,” people can say “Oh, yeah? You should hear what happened with my home repair–you’ll never believe it! There was this guy…” or they can say “Houses, amirite? Hey, is that the Panera flatbread thingy you’ve got?” That’s what most people will say, and then that’s the end of the story.

          Or they can say “Oh, wow, really?” And at that point you are the chorus in “Summer Lovin'” chanting “Tell me more, tell me more.” I think the people who become perpetual listeners in this pattern are like volleyers and dance partners–they’re hitting back the ball that got hit to them and following the steps of the one who’s leading. Sometimes it’s because they feel rude changing the rhythm of the dance; sometimes (and this is a big one for me) they’re feeling lazy and are happy to feed the meter and just let the story roll as they drift. But I really don’t think it’s when they approach you–I think it’s moment where the monologist starts the personal story, and the listener doesn’t engage in the usual fend-off-and-redirect.

          1. Manders

            This is something that I’ll have to do some thinking about. It’s definitely true that I’m afraid of coming off as rude by interrupting the flow of a conversation or cutting someone’s story short.

            I think I struggle with this the most when I actually do have the time to listen to someone (my work has periods of downtime when we’re just sitting around waiting for the next task) but I don’t want to hear about a particular subject or I’d rather just read the news for a bit. I’m always afraid of giving the impression that I don’t care about the person who wants to speak (especially because when I did try to end conversations with a particularly chatty coworker, she sulked and acted out, and things got very tense in the office for a while).

      2. OP

        I’ll totally own my role in letting this become my reality, as I describe in my question to AMA about bringing this burden on myself and wanting out of the situation I have created.
        Thank you for the kind words.

    2. OP

      I can’t pinpoint a specific moment in time that it became the status quo. I’ve never openly said anything like, “You can always vent to me,” or “I’m always here for you,” or anything like that. I think in the years that I’ve been at this job, I’ve just developed the reputation of the helpful, non-threatening listener type. Then with each interaction that I haven’t set boundaries within, I’ve validated their assumption that they can come to me for almost anything. :(

      1. Not So NewReader

        I had a job where people brought me their work problems. Some of the problems were real head-scratchers. But this is how it happened. I fixed one person’s bad problem. Then I fixed another person’s really bad problem. Then I was seen being told by the boss to take on huge bad problem. The problems kept getting harder and harder to solve. One day, I was told, “You are the only person in the building that figures out this difficult stuff.” I wanted to go hide. People do pass the word to each other.

        You can use this to your advantage. IF this is true, this rumor mill thing, then you can stuff the mill with info such as you are concerned about doing a good job. And you think that you are spending way to much time talking with people. It bothers you to have to stop talking so much and you are heartbroken. But you do not want to jeopardize your job because you need your job. Pick a person who seems to be a microphone and let that person help you spread the word.

  10. Lizabeth

    This goes with the “How do I stop my coworker from talking” post…

    Don’t feel guilty about cutting people off…you’re still a nice person if you don’t listen to them.

  11. RVA Cat

    Does your employer have an EAP? If so, you could gently steer people towards it – after all, those are the people who *are* paid to be the office therapist and have the skills to do so!

  12. JMegan

    My office actually has a formal role like this. It’s not in anyone’s specific job description, but we do have a “Peer 2 Peer” counselling program, where if someone is feeling stressed they can sit down with a P2P rep and vent just as the OP is describing. My understanding is they they’re not intended to offer specific advice (other than referrals to EAP), but really to provide a supportive ear for people who need to decompress in this way. Having a specific program in place offers people the opportunity to talk about their problems like this, and at the same time puts some pretty firm boundaries around it.

    OP, this might be really farfetched, but would you be interested in starting a program similar to this? I imagine it would be a ton of work, but if you have the interest and the bandwidth and the organizational support, this might be a way of recognizing that the need exists, and getting yourself out of the role (by getting other people to do it, while you look like a super-innovative and empathetic rock star!) If your goal is to get out completely, then of course this isn’t an option for you, but it might be something to file away in your mental “things I might like to try in the future when I have all the time in the world” folder.

    1. JMegan

      *I edited this comment about a million times, because I don’t want you to think I’m suggesting you take on extra work! But I did want you to know that this kind of program is a thing that exists in the world, in case it’s something you’d be interested in at some point in the future.

      1. OP

        I do believe that it’s a resource my company would use thoroughly but I have zero interest in leading the charge. I feel like that should be an effort by our HR department.

        1. JMegan

          Agreed, and good for you for standing firm on that one. I’d love an update once you feel like everything is sorted!

  13. TheSockMonkey

    Just wanted to offer my sympathies because I have been there. As it turns out, over time, many of the venters left the company because they were miserable. The problem was management sometimes associated me with the whiners so I knew I had to separate myself. (OP, keep in mind that your boss may have noticed and not said anything to you, but is making mental notes).

    I ended up in this situation because people made negative comments to me and I didn’t stop them. I didn’t anticipate the consequences.

    I solved the problem by not hanging out with anyone at work for lunch, coffee, etc. and trying to look busy. That meant I had no idea of what was going on as management didn’t communicate properly and all actual information came from gossip. Being out of the loop was worth it to me as I was very stressed out by the amount of negative attention coming my way.

    Anyhow, consistency is key. Good luck OP

    1. OP

      I relate to your situation so much. It’s going to be an uphill battle but if it benefits my bottom line and productivity, it will be worth every (potentially dramatic) conversation.

    2. Chrissi

      I’ve also had the situation where I was always listening to people venting about the company, and I started to get a negative view and it affected my morale as well. I made an effort to do a mental attitude adjustment and stopped agreeing when people would vent. I started to argue or play Devil’s advocate (or avoid people that were venting) and that helped me get back to a more positive place. Think of it as self-preservation to get them to stop :)

  14. M

    OP what are your ultimate goals (work and personal)? Because unless you address how you got into this predicament in the first place all of this advice will be wasted.

    You’re upset now but whatever need that allowed you to become the defacto therapist instead of developing your skills and your network value over the last 18 months will resurface and erase your efforts of rewriting the script. Surely others have already noticed how much time you are not spending with work but they’ve allowed it to continue for now . I fear you’ve already set the script at this job as the office nurturer and if you are serious about advancing as a “xyz” you will need to look for a new environment because you’ve already trained people to see you as a nurturer not a kick butt xyz. I think many are underestimating the push back you’re about to receive and the “anger/disappointment” is going to stay with you no matter what future work you produce at this employer. When a potential promotion or project comes through it wont be “OP did such a fantastic job on the Jones project & has earned raise” it will always bounce back to “OP stopped letting me talk to her” (& I’m very sure this is a woman writing in). People are selfish like that especially if it’s already gotten to point where they are calling you at home on days off.

    OP whatever your goals are treat yourself as a client in need, start taking your own advice and retrain yourself to be indispensable for the work you were hired to contribute. Be honest with yourself. Are you a people pleaser? Do you have difficulty with boundaries in your personal life? Do you just not like this job and need to search for new one (or even scarier refocus your career track)? What ever it is put yourself first before you take the habits from this job to your next one.

    1. OP

      Yes, I’m a woman. Your comment stings the most and I gave myself a couple of hours to consider why. I figured it out – because you’re right. To be clear though, I am still very productive and a high achiever at work. I put the pressure on myself to spend more time being strategic and committed to being literally at my desk, but there’s no work going unfinished.

      Yes, I’m a people pleaser, unfortunately. Working on that. I do love this job and want to work on it.

      1. Not So NewReader

        It’s okay to be a people pleaser IF you have a clear purpose.
        “If I make the extra effort to get the report to Bob a little early, he will be so pleased that he will have time to make those nice charts that he likes.”

        Take what could be a bit of a suitcase in life and turn it into an asset in life. If you like to please people then it will come naturally to you to remember little things that people like in their work. I do a simple report each week for my boss. She loooves it when I remember to break out x and y to make them extra clear. It takes two seconds to do it and it makes her work much easier for her.

        Think about ways to use your desire to people-please strategically for work purposes. Use it to better your own work, the work of those around you and the overall work of your group.

      2. F.

        Have you considered talking to EAP yourself? I grew up in a pyschogically abusive family and then spent nearly 20 years in a psychologically abusive marriage. I was so desperate to please (and “earn” love) that I finally had a depressive breakdown. This got me the therapy that I needed, and I spent my 40s learning how to speak up for myself and set boundaries. Now I’m spending my 50s learning when to keep my mouth shut, but that’s another story!

      3. M

        I was unable to respond on my phone. I’m glad you were able to take my comment in the spirit given. Truth is I used to be you and until I accepted my role in recurring instances I kept repeating certain patterns.

        Here’s the harder truth, it doesn’t matter how hard you actually work. If the perception is your strength is in other “soft” areas then you won’t get credit or reap rewards. People will remember what they see the most. You want people to miss you for your input and insight not because you aren’t there to talk to.

        I also disagree with post below – people pleasing has no place in the work force. Your job is to perform your duties not seek to soothe others emotional needs. Do what’s best because its best not because you’re seeking brownie points. Take that energy and use it elsewhere. As you’ve already seen people will take and take and continue to push boundaries (calling you on days off for non work emergencies) and those same people will not remember your “kindness” when the time comes for your work assessment. In fact their amnesia will probably hurt you. Not getting a raise or promotion because selfish people want to keep you accessible for their needs is not something I’d want you to experience.

  15. Marina

    I absolutely agree with Alison’s advice–at this point setting very, very clear boundaries is going to have the best effect. But if that sounds too scary, or if in the future you find yourself being pulled back towards this kind of relationship, one thing that’s worked pretty well for me is to give the advice people don’t want to hear. Like, “Why haven’t you broken up with him yet?” or “You should really talk to a therapist about this, here’s the phone number for our EAP,” or “Well, you kind of brought this on yourself, you know.” Venting people don’t want solutions, they want to vent, so if you give them solutions they will by and large stop venting to you.

  16. some1

    Great advice and comments! Another possible reaction you might get: people who realize they have been out of line and avoid you out of embarrassment.

  17. Lindrine

    There are FIVE video ads going on right now. The bottom one with sound on. I am not a fan of auto play videos and this many in particular.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m so sorry about this! I’m working with my ad network to try to get them stopped; auto-play ads are supposed to be turned off entirely on this site, but unscrupulous advertisers have found ways to send them through anyway.

      Unfortunately, the only way for me to get these tracked down and stopped is if you’re able to send me the URL it links to. If you see any of them again and can do that, I’d really appreciate it!

  18. Eva G.

    OP’s situation reminds me of a coworker I used to have. He was so preternaturally empathetic and kindly that it was almost like he had a sixth sense. He would step into my office to ask me something and begin by politely inquiring how I was, and when he looked at me I felt like he was looking into my soul and compassionately unearthing emotions I myself was not aware of having. Replying with a simple “fine” if I wasn’t actually fine would have felt like a bald-faced lie, plus I would be genuinely unsettled by his penetrating gaze, so I sometimes found myself oversharing. We were friendly and I would also listen to him talk about things he was interested in, and I didn’t abuse his willingness to lend an ear beyond blabbering for a minute in reply to his “how are yous”, so I think it was OK, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one to unwittingly pick him for a confidant and I can totally see how it could add up to take a real toll on someone blessed and cursed with such an empathetic charisma.

    1. Elizabeth West

      I’ve known people like this, but unfortunately, their kindness was a facade and I ended up regretting confiding in them. So I developed the “Great! How are you?” response to instantly deflect it back to them. It had to have the “How are you” or it didn’t work–they would gently probe until my guts were on the floor.

      1. Eva G.

        I’m sorry to hear about your experience with kindly-seeming people who weren’t truly kind.

        In my case, I never had reason to regret confiding in this guy. I’m thinking it might not have been the same type of person we’ve dealt with, because the guy I worked with never probed to get me to open up. All he had to do was politely ask “how are you?” as the prelude to whatever brought him into my office and look me in the eye, and I would start pouring my heart out in 60 seconds, and after he had gone I would recognize that I had some introspection to do about whatever had just surfaced. But he never used any of it against me or made me feel uncomfortable.

        Thinking about him now, I remember that early on I witnessed his compassionate dealings with a Chinese student who struggled with poor English skills (we worked in academia) and was struck by how selflessly and generously he behaved to help out a fellow human in need when there could be absolutely nothing in it for him. That bit of background knowledge probably helped me let my guard down with him, too. I’m sure he has his faults like anyone else, but in two years of working closely with him I only ever experienced him as hardworking and kind. Probably the most saint-like person I’ve met.

        1. Elizabeth West

          He sounds like a really, really nice person. :) I’m glad you got to know him. People like that make the world a better place.

          A different person who was like the fake, non-nice people is the inspiration for an upcoming character. This person was such an insidious sociopath that I still feel traumatized even years later. o_O Oh boy, am I going to milk that experience for all it’s worth.

    2. Not So NewReader

      It could be that OP needs to go back to school to become a counselor! Maybe she does have a gift.

      No, I know you already said, you were not interested in counseling people, OP. I kid here.

      But you know if you do have a gift for insights to people you can still use that in your ordinary work day. You can use it in interactions, or when planning out a task or flow of a task and you can use it in trouble shooting work problems. Having keen insight to people is always to your advantage.

  19. neverjaunty

    OP, there is some truly excellent advice here, but I think it’s worth noting that your workplace is WAY out of bounds here. It is well into the Bizarro No Boundaries Dimension. Regardless of how kind or patient you have been, the situation is WELL beyond garden-variety “Wakeen always wants to vent at me about his girlfriend” or “I have this one co-worker who doesn’t take a hint that I think chat time is over.” You have multiple co-workers (not friends: co-workers) who are demanding hours of your time in order to use you as a sounding board, and who never seem to notice that you don’t reciprocate. They feel so entitled that when you have personal time off, they intrude on it, demanding to know when you will be back in order to serve as their unpaid therapists. Perhaps worst of all, your management either is completely oblivious to this situation (which, as you say, is sucking up hours of time they are paying you with the expectation that you are doing work), or is aware of it and doesn’t care.

    In addition to implementing the suggestions here, it would probably be a really, really good idea to find another job ASAP in a functional workplace. Because even if everything magically works to shut down your being used as the office therapist, you will still be working with selfish drama llamas and managers who enable them.

    1. LQ

      It seems odd to me to assume the work place is super bizarro inappropriate. I’d be willing to bet that some of these people DO think that the OP is a friend (at least a work friend) and they likely vent like this to the outside of work friends too so they don’t see the difference.

      And if the OP is exempt and getting all the work done and has not complained then why does that make management evil?

      I think the first step is pushing back, if people respond reasonably then yeah, it’s just something that got a little out of control, get it back on track, better.

      But we only know this part of this workplace and it’s not “My boss says I have to listen to these people” or “I’ve tried dozens of times and HR keeps coming in to tell me I have to be nicer”. Those would be horrible bizzaro work places.

      1. neverjaunty

        I didn’t say management was “evil”, so not sure where you’re getting that from; I said that they’re either oblivious, or aware and doing nothing about this waste of company time, and either way that is a huge problem.

        And yes, it is super bizarro inappropriate for OP’s coworkers to be texting her “obsessively” while she’s out on PTO demanding to know when she can come back and listen to them.

      2. LQ

        Ok you said completely oblivious or don’t care. But if she’s exempt from their pov she’s wasting her time. And if her bosses are hands off and she’s getting her work done and not complaining…I still don’t get how this is a huge problem that they haven’t noticed it.

        In a prior job I could have easily had this problem and had my boss not notice because he was very hands off, I managed my schedule, my budget, and my work. If I’d suddenly stopped doing my work he would have noticed, but him not noticing something I didn’t bring up wouldn’t have made it a huge problem. It would have meant that I wasn’t ready to be handled in a hands off manner, and I don’t think this OP has shown that. They went, hey this seems to be an issue, I know a great website, I think I’ll check to see what I can to and see if I can fix it myself. This doesn’t mean it’s a huge problematic dysfunctional organization.

        And she hasn’t told them to stop, that’s what she was asking for help with.

        1. neverjaunty

          OP thinks it is a problem: “Playing therapist is costing me hours that I could spend at my desk doing good work.” So unless we are going to assume OP is completely mistaken about her job and the amount of time she should be putting in, she has a situation where her co-worker’s constant interruption is interfering with her work, and her bosses either don’t notice that for some reason or don’t find it to be a problem.

          1. OP

            To be thorough, I do get all of my work done and in an efficient manner. The therapy sessions eating into my time are not okay though – it’s time I could be spending doing strategy, planning, big picturing, etc. I’m not letting anything fall through the cracks but it’s not good enough for me, I want to do and be better.

  20. just laura

    If you were my office therapist, I think I’d prefer to hear #2. Otherwise I would think you were blowing me off. Good luck!

  21. Erin

    Offer solutions to everything and ask people why they didn’t do as they were told.
    People like that actually hate solutions.
    A person at one of my jobs used me as a vent for everything, most of it her own fault, which was really annoying. When I stopped caring and got tired of listening to it, I started offering easy and rational short solutions for every single problem she came up with.
    Didn’t take her long to stop and switch to another colleague.

  22. CM

    Make a chart with pairs of venting coworkers and post it on your door. When somebody comes to your office with a story about their boyfriend, point to the chart and tell them that from now one, they have to vent to their buddy instead of you.

  23. Jill

    I am like the OP. It’s due to a previous job I had where it was my JOB to be dumped on. I was so used to being a great listener with the citizens that called that I’d go on autopilot and slip into that role with co-workers and people in my personal life. It’s been a very hard habit to break but Alison’s suggestions are solid – and so is her warning about potential backlash.

    Just remember, anyone that gives you backlash has just proven that they are using you as a therapist and that they don’t see any need to reciprocate. You can cut those folks off guilt-free.

    And if there are people that you are genuinely concerned about and truly do want to hear life details from, you can help yourself by listening to them, but on your terms not theirs. “I’m swamped now, but can you meet for lunch on Friday so we can talk?” “I’m on deadline today but do you want to meet early at the coffee cart tomorrow and tell me about it?” You’re not telling these folks no…but you are still setting a boundary that works for you.

    1. Marina

      +1. I think this will also help people realize that venting to you really is a significant burden, not just something simple for you.

  24. OP

    I can’t thank everyone here enough for your thoughtful, thorough comments and feedback about the appropriate course of action here. It’s a situation I’ve gotten myself into and I know sticking to Alison’s suggestions will remedy the mess I’m in. I do plan to provide an update in a couple of months and I’ll be in touch. Thank you again.

  25. DarjeelingAtNoon

    I am sorry that you are going through this, and it sounds like you are on a great pathway to solving the issue. You sound like someone with a lot of emotional intelligence, and that will really help you as you launch out in these unfamiliar waters. The unfamiliar is always uncomfortable at first, but soon it will be the new office “normal”. At that point, your emotional energy will be released to work on your own success. Good luck!

    1. DarjeelingAtNoon

      I should say “focus more on your own success”, because it sounds like you are already a great employee.

  26. Bobby941

    My work culture is that as a manager I have to be understanding and sympathetic. So I have one employee who often dumps on me with ‘sagas’ that just sound ridiculous and self-centered. One thing after another. How to get out of this one ?

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