A worker consulting with a colleague

4 Signs You’re the Unofficial Office Therapist

Get strategic advice on how to handle being everyone's favorite listener in your workplace.

When you spend at least 40 hours a week with the same group of people, it’s natural for the occasional conversation to turn toward complaining or even gossiping about the workplace. But for you, it just seems to be a nearly daily occurrence. While there might be times where you love being in the know about your colleagues’ business, you may find it hard to draw boundaries when conversations take a turn for the less professional. 

Here are a few signs that you’re already classified as everyone’s favorite listener, and tips on how to draw boundaries or pivot conversations to protect your professionalism:

1. You’re the go-to person for “coffee dates”
Conversations over the proverbial cup o’ joe are a daily occurrence for you. However, from your perspective these breaks involve more listening than talking, and typically involve venting about a grumpy manager or client, or a fight with a significant other. 

While on the surface a break with a co-worker may sound relaxing, the gossip that comes with it might be adding unneeded stress to your busy day. Remember that it’s OK to say, “No thanks,” to a coffee date. A small shift in your daily coffee break habit can have a big impact on your day’s productivity and office relationship.

2. You get more instant messages about frustrations than actual work 
Chat services can be great to get quick answers to work-related questions, but they can also be breeding grounds for venting and complaining.

For example:

  • Messages you wish you received: “Hey there. Looking for a second opinion on this purchasing plan, and I really value your opinion. Any thoughts?”
  • Messages you actually receive: “Ugh. He did it again! This is the second time he’s taken credit for my idea. I’m so sick of it!”

If your day is constantly interrupted with messages that focus on frustrations, consider only turning on your chat service during certain hours of the day. Another approach is to offer a nonemotional response, such as, “I’m sorry that happened again! I’m really trying to focus on a project right now, so maybe we can talk about it later.”

3. You know everyone’s “work skeletons”
That bad judgement call that led to a demotion or that overheard comment that led to a client firing your firm? Whether it was your boss that did it or the new intern, you know all of the details — for better or for worse. 

Sometimes the information comes to you from the top down in frustration or from the bottom up in regret and sorrow. Either way, make it a practice to consider this information completely classified. Doing so will protect your integrity and ensure you don’t spread potentially embarrassing information — even if it is a tabloid-worthy story.

4. You often feel like the middleman 
When the majority of your co-workers look to you to air their grievances, chances are you’ll receive multiple sides to a story, and more than one person looking for you to take their side. That feeling of being trapped in the middle or forced to say, “I’m not on anyone’s side”? You know them both well. 

Even though it can be tough, sometimes the best approach in this situation is to be open and honest about the fact that you’re getting both stories. Try encouraging the two quarreling employees to talk directly to each other instead of to you. This can help them resolve their differences and keep you from feeling stuck in the middle.

While your role as the unofficial office therapist is one that can occasionally feel like a burden, you know that without this role, your team’s dynamic wouldn’t be quite the same. So even though you won’t be getting rid of this title anytime soon, you’ll do what you can to get through it with as much levelheadedness as possible.