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How to set boundaries with your work friends and keep things from getting awkward
How do you keep a happy hour with colleagues from devolving into a venting session? Elevate /Pexels

At their best, work friends can entertain you, comfort you and advise you. They can understand certain problems and stresses like no one else in your life can, and often they make waking up on Monday mornings a little less painful.

But an over-friendly colleague can also distract you, demoralize you and embroil you in office politics or gossip. It’s easy to slip into intimacy when you share a cubicle wall and 40 hours of a week with someone, and easy for you both to say or do something subtle that breeds resentment (and impacts your professional performance).

Those with work friendships somewhere in the middle of comforting and distracting can avoid sticky situations by setting some boundaries with their colleagues. As anyone who’s had a presentation brainstorm turn into a therapy session knows, that’s easier said than done. Maneuver a little more carefully with these tips.

Figure out who your friends are

Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., a board-certified specialist in clinical psychology and author of the new book Be Awesome! Banish Burnout: Create Motivation From the Inside Out, sees work friends falling into three camps: people you get lunch with occasionally, people you actually hang out with during off-hours and those somewhere in the middle. It’s the last you need to be most careful with, she said in a recent phone interview. “This is where I think we can run into danger,” she said. “If we’re using work time to discuss personal difficulties, or talk about other co-workers or job satisfaction, that gets in the way of boundaries. The more you share about your life with someone, the more information they have.”

Knowing what kind of relationship you want with a specific person, or determining what kind of relationships you want with anyone at work, can help you define how you set your boundaries.

Steer off-campus convos away from work

It’s natural to discuss the one thing you definitely have in common with your colleague. But spending two hours venting about your company isn’t just bad manners, it’s terrible for morale. Be the one who makes it uncool to spend your precious outside hours dwelling on your boss.

Spending two hours venting about your company isn’t just bad manners, it’s terrible for morale.

“I just change the subject each time,” Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster, said in a phone interview. “Yes, work will constantly come up, but say, ‘Guys, lets not talk about work. We’re there so often and it’s such a big part of our lives.” She suggested directing the convo onto safer or neutral topics, like the latest HBO series or upcoming vacation plans. “Keep things on another level,” she said.

“It feels like solidarity in the moment but it is definitely likely to take over your own feelings of unhappiness and negativity,” Hallett said, “and increase the likelihood that something you said or heard will be taken out of context.”

Know which topics to avoid

You know that old chestnut, “never discuss religion or politics in polite company”? You might want to add sex and money to that axiom in general, but when it’s work friends, the area of acceptable topics shrinks even more, our experts said.

“It can impact your credibility. If I’m coming in and talking about a significant health problem or significant personal problem in my life, what’s the impact of that on my listener?” Hallett said. Of course, if something huge is going on that may affect your attendance or work load, you can alert your manager — but letting everyone in your pod know you’re breaking up with your long-term S.O. might allow them to assign a reason why a project is running late.

“It’s your personal life for a reason,” Salemi said. Oh, and “don’t ever let your coworkers know you’re looking for a job externally. You owe it to your boss to tell them first.” Propriety aside, the recipient of that information could share it with others... and what if someone then decides to go for that opportunity, too?

Squelch the need to reciprocate

Sure, you might want to hear all about your co-worker’s one-night stand. But that doesn’t mean you need to suddenly start divulging details of your recent sexual exploits, if you aren’t comfortable sharing. “You can say, ‘It’s my personal policy, I don’t talk about my love life at work,’” Salemi said. “They may not have boundaries, but you want to set them. You can say it nicely, but in such a way that they get it.”

If they want to know if you’re dating, you could also go with a (pointed) joke like, “Wow, you and my mom are obsessed with this topic.”

It’s human nature to want to share with someone after they’ve opened up to you, a conversational tit-for-tat, but eventually they’ll get the hint. “Generally speaking, the average person — not the oversharer, but the average person — if they’re sharing and they don’t get information back, the sharing decreases over time,” Hallett said. Fight the urge to volley a personal anecdote back, and you’ll shut down the awkward talk.

Practice a few useful phrases

Sometimes people can’t take a hint when you politely ignore their repeated requests to hang out or attend their kids’ birthday parties. In those cases, our experts recommend stockpiling some go-to explanations when pressed.

“You could try, ‘I appreciate the offer but my self-care practice is to keep my personal and professional lives separate,’” Hallett said.

If that’s a little too Gwyneth Paltrow for you, Salemi suggested: “‘I appreciate the invite, it’s nothing against you, I just like to keep things on a professional level. Why don’t we have lunch that week and you tell me how it went?’” Or a simple “I don’t mingle outside of work,” should shut it down, she said.

What’s useful about these phrases is that “The onus is on you, not them,” Hallett said. “What you’re not trying to do is create a sense of rejection for them.” It’s not you, it’s me.

Set time limits

Say you’ve developed a real rapport with a coworker, whether you’ve hung out on the weekends or not. Then they start hitting up your desk regularly to chat or kill time — or worse, they come by because they’re upset about something personal or professional and want your input this minute.

“You could say, ‘I have 10 minutes, but what’s wrong?’” Salemi said. “Show your compassion. We are humans first! I lean toward the side of, ‘What do you need, how can I help?’ Sometimes you just need to listen.”

For those more casual moments, try “‘I have something I’ve got to get going on,’” Hallett said. “If it’s continual, I think you take a moment to say, ‘I really enjoyed our conversation but I need to really focus during the day. Let’s talk during our break time or at lunch.’”

After all, your work hours are for work. That’s the simplest boundary of them all.

Kaitlin Menza
Contributing writer, Payoff
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