How to Deal with a Gossipy Coworker

A reader asks:

My coworker calls me a lot to vent and gossip, often about other coworkers. When I don’t agree, I struggle with voicing my opinion because when I have tried to before, the conversation just gets longer and goes nowhere because her views are rigid. It usually ends with me being mostly silent and her taking that to mean we are on the same page, but we are not. I also don’t feel that gossiping in this way is appropriate or productive…. But I’m such a people pleaser that I have such a hard time shutting it down. We work on a close team so I can’t avoid her. How can I maintain a good working relationship and just get her to only call me about legitimate work questions? I’m worried that if I’m going to get myself in trouble if I keep associating with her but since we work closely I can’t avoid it.

This is a tough one…

I think your instincts on this are correct: Gossiping and complaining at work are a pretty bad idea all the way around. And, to be honest, like you, I’d worry about being associated with someone like this.

My advice is to be assertive and set some firm boundaries around your coworker’s behavior.

For example, you might say something like this:

Jeff, I’d like to talk to you about something important. I enjoy working with you. And I especially appreciate (something about your coworker you do genuinely admire or appreciate). But you have a tendency to call me up and vent or complain about work and I don’t think that’s a good idea for me to be a part of that. I’m sorry if you assumed I was okay with it since I didn’t say anything before. I was nervous and didn’t want to hurt your feelings so that’s on me. But going forward I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call me to vent or complain. To be clear, I enjoy chatting with you about other things and working with you generally, I just don’t want to do the venting/complaining thing anymore.

You could say something like this in person or over email or in whatever way you think makes the most sense. But the critical thing is to just do it and not procrastinate on it because you’re afraid you haven’t phrased everything perfectly or aren’t 100% sure of the right way to do it.

Now, this is going to be hard largely because of the difficult emotions that come up for you before, during, and potentially after this bit of assertive communication.

As a self-described “people-pleaser,” I’m sure even contemplating it brings up a lot of anxiety—anxiety about them feeling angry or upset, about how they’ll react, about not being able to work with them well in the future, etc.

The key is to remember this:

You are responsible for your actions, not other people’s feelings

If your coworker does get upset as a result of you being assertive, that’s unfortunate, but it’s not bad or something you are responsible for. It’s totally understandable that this would bring up a lot of fear and anxiety for you. Those feelings are normal and okay, even if uncomfortable. It’s important to validate that anxiety.

It takes courage to be assertive—to do the right thing despite feeling afraid.

But in the long-run, I think this is your best option.

One more thing…

Be prepared for your coworker to violate and not respect your boundary—that is, for them to keep calling you to vent. Have a plan for this. Know what you’re going to say if you find yourself in a conversation with him and he starts gossiping or complaining. Then stick to it.

Because if you don’t—if you tolerate the boundary violation—things will end up even worse because you’re effectively teaching him that your requests and boundaries aren’t serious.

Setting boundaries is hard. Enforcing them is harder.

But it’s worth it in the end.