Welcome to “Ask Ada,” a weekly series in which we answer all those burning questions you’d rather not share aloud. Buckle up for some brutally honest advice!
I’m not an overly social person by any means, but my new job kind of sucks because I’m the only one in the office most of the day. Whenever anyone comes in […] they just vent all of their complaints, frustrations, hardships, and anger. Most of their issues are out of my control. I tried to mention this problem to one of the bosses in passing so that they’ll be aware, even if nothing will change. How can I stay positive in such a negative environment?
Hi Office Pet,
I will share strategies on how to stay positive in a moment, but before I do, I need to reinforce what you already said in your letter: 99% of the time, you won’t be able to help the other person. You are the new hire, you have little power in the company, and you will have to use any kind of goodwill and clout you bring in from other jobs carefully. All of this to say that yep, you’re right, people are using you as a sounding board, and it sucks.
Having said that, you can help yourself if you identify others’ specific problems and then pick your battles. Not everything requires your full support or even your full attention, nor should you give it to every problem. In my experience, office venting typically falls into one of these categories:
1) Letting off steam in a safe space.
On the one hand, it’s flattering that your colleagues think that you’re a safe, understanding, trustworthy person. On the other, it sucks because you obviously don’t know what’s happening or what to do about it. Also, this type of venting tends to fall disproportionately on female-presenting people, which creates a layer of emotional labour that you didn’t sign up for. The good news is that when someone is just letting off steam, they don’t expect you to do anything about it. They just want you to nod your head and say, “Wow, that sucks!” and “Yeah, I can tell that this is bothering you a lot.” So, just validate, then ignore to stay positive.
2) Thinking out loud.
Thinking out loud is a step up from venting in that there may actually be something that you can do to help with the problem. In some offices, people need to talk a problem through in order to stay positive and come up with a solution. You may think that a particular issue is not in your wheelhouse, but your reactions to what the person says help them explain to themselves what they need to do. On occasion, you may suggest a truly innovative solution, too. Sometimes people get stuck on a problem because they look at it from the inside. In that case, you may be able to see a solution from where you sit. In those cases, you don’t have to do anything but listen and respond… and make sure that nobody steals your credit.
3) Someone has a genuine problem and needs support.
Sometimes people in the office vent because their situation is difficult, and they feel like there is no way out. Cases like harassment, wage theft, or feeling like a situation is driving you into a corner fall into this category. In these cases, it’s hard to stay positive. You can give the person validation, help them come up with a plan of action, and if it comes down to it, back them up as a witness.
Distinguishing between a genuine problem and a casual vent helps you manage both your emotional investment and your co-workers’. Right now, you’re a captive audience who cares about your co-workers’ tiniest concerns as much as they do, which makes you a much more desirable sounding board than you would like to be. If you know that someone is just ranting, it’s a lot easier to take their issues in stride and get on with your work while still being sympathetic. Eventually, they’ll get bored and go bother someone else.
Finally, a note about telling your boss about your co-workers’ venting: While it is important to let them know if a giant problem is brewing, it is also crucial that you manage the information flow. In other words, you should always, always check in with your co-workers to see if they want you to tell your boss.
We don’t live in an ideal world, and bosses don’t always handle problems as well as they could. What may start off as well-intentioned help might backfire on your colleague, so use your best judgement and always ask what they want you to do. This will show them that you are trustworthy, that you respect consent, and that you are serious about big issues.
An added bonus: that alone might deter the casual venters.
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