Each of us has problems, and we all need a listening ear. Maybe it’s a friend, spouse, or parent. Whatever the case, it’s nice to know that you’ve got someone you can talk to whenever you’re feeling low.
Further, the boundaries between work and home have become increasingly entwined over the past two years. In these cases, turning to a coworker could be beneficial. In particular, Susan Cain, author of Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, found that it could result in stronger coworker connections and greater productivity.
In her book, Cain cites the example of a company that normalized sharing personal issues. The billing department at Midwest Billing, a community hospital in Jackson, Michigan, created a culture in which every employee was assumed to have a personal problem. Rather than be seen as a problem, teammates demonstrated compassion by sharing their troubles. Employees helped each other out with divorces, domestic violence, deaths in the family, and even when someone was ill.
Not only was sharing troubles good for your mental health, but it was good for business too. “During the five years prior to the study, Midwest Billing got its bills collected more than twice as fast as before, beating industry standards,” writes Cain. “The turnover rate in the unit was only 2%, compared with an average of 25% across all of Midwest Health System, and a significantly higher rate across the medical billing industry.”
Honestly, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Why Talking About Our Problems Helps
Talking about our problems helps us a lot, according to previous research.
In research from U.C.L.A., “affect labeling” is a method for putting feelings into words so that the amygdala is less triggered when confronted with upsetting things. In this way, you can slow down your stress response over time.
Being in a car after a car accident, for example, can be emotionally overwhelming. But, as you talk the situation through, put your feelings into words, and process what happened, you won’t feel that way when you get back into the car.
Additionally, studies at Southern Methodist University found that writing about traumatic experiences or undergoing talk therapy helped patients’ immune systems and health. It was found that suppressing thoughts and emotions increases stress. Either way, the negative feelings are there, but you must work to suppress them. When your brain and body are overworked, you are more susceptible to getting sick or feeling miserable.
How to Your Troubles At Work
While you may feel awkward sharing your troubles with your teammates, here are some pointers on how to do so.
Think about whether it’s a topic worth discussing.
Work may seem like the perfect place to vent, but it is not. Never share what you are going through personally at work. The exception? When a problem affects your career, sharing personal information should be reserved.
In fact, this kind of sharing can sometimes help strengthen work relationships. Some examples of appropriate personal topics to share are:
- An illness that’s impacting your performance.
- You’ve got a family issue that’s affecting your work schedule or ability to work.
On the flip side, you should avoid discussing the following:
- Financial concerns.
- Problems with your children include drugs, arrests, and troubles at school.
- Relationship problems of any kind.
- Litigation, neighbor wars, car troubles.
If you steer clear of these conversations, you avoid being labeled as someone who has so many issues that it hinders your career.
And, one more thing. If you have a serious medical problem or family emergency, it’s probably best to discuss this with your boss. You can then brainstorm possible solutions like a leave of absence or a flexible work schedule.
Speak with the right people.
In the past, if you shared how you felt with someone and didn’t seem to yield any results, it might be because you weren’t talking to the right person. The support of someone you trust (without enabling bad habits such as co-rumination) is critical.
Find someone who has experienced the same problem and hopefully solve it. For example, if you’re struggling to meet deadlines or understand the scope of a project, ask a coworker for help. Hopefully, they can share their time management tips or clarify the work with you.
What should you do if you need a lot of time to talk? Well, maybe you could schedule a recurring bi-weekly check-in. Or divide your conversations among several people. Having a comprehensive social support system lets you distribute the load if one is worn out.
Schedule the right time and place to talk.
Even if it is a serious issue, it isn’t worth allowing to fester and linger. But, at the same time, you also don’t want to pour your heart when your coworkers are rushing to a meeting. So if you know when they’ll be less busy, pick a time that works for you.
Also, pick a time when they’ll be alone. After all, you don’t want to disclose a medical problem, for instance, at the water cooler or on a team call.
The easiest way to approach this? Share your calendar with them. This way, they can see when you’re available. From there, they can book a time to chat when they’re also free. You can even add a location, like a nearby coffee shop, to the invite to prevent other coworkers from eavesdropping.
Use “I” statements.
Thomas Gordon introduced “I statements” in the 1960s as a way to help kids understand emotions and behaviors during play therapy. However, they can have many advantages during communication, including:
- Feeling statements are a way to express assertiveness without provoking blame, accusation, defensiveness, or guilt in other people.
- It’s easy to solve conflicts without putting people on the defensive. This focuses the conversation on solving a problem rather than assigning blame by focusing on the feelings and needs of the speaker.
- Using I-messages can also be an excellent way to give constructive feedback to others. The conversation is focused on the speaker’s feelings rather than how they feel about it.
Of course, not every situation requires using “I” statements. However, they can be helpful in the following situations:
- If we need to confront someone about their behavior.
- Feelings of injustice when others treat us poorly.
- When we feel angry or defensive.
- If someone is angry with us.
At the same time, there are potential disadvantages to “I” statements. These include being seen as expressing emotionalism, weakness, and what’s best for you.
Despite these concerns, when sharing your troubles with a coworker, they can be productive. For example, let’s say you’re collaborating with them, and they have a habit of not providing updates on their progress. You could say, “I get anxious when I don’t receive updates.”
Take action on solutions.
“Problem-solving makes you feel better, but getting things off your chest alone doesn’t make you feel better,” advises Kristin Behfar, Ph.D. So keep multiple solutions in your back pocket, whether you offer advice or ask for it.
Your next step should be to act. This will ensure that you won’t complain simply for the sake of complaining.
Of course, putting that into practice isn’t always easy. Here is a 10-step process devised by Brian Tracy for putting your plans into action:
- Positively frame the problem.
- Clearly define the situation or problem.
- Take several different approaches to the problem using critical thinking.
- Decide on the ideal solution to the problem.
- Select the most appropriate solution to your challenge.
- Prepare for and overcome the worst outcome possible.
- Keep track of your progress.
- Be fully responsible for your decision.
- Set a deadline to solve the problem.
- Solve your problem by taking action.
Set time limits.
If a colleague has taken the time out of their day to listen to you, then you need to pay them the same level of respect. How? By being respectful of their valuable time.
The first place to start is setting time limits. It’s unreasonable for them to block out three hours of their day to listen to your life story. So instead, a 30-minute should suffice.
To keep you on track, prepare an agenda — just like you would with a meeting. That means focusing on the work problem that’s giving you the most distress. Then, after identifying this issue, jot down and rehearse what you want to say to keep the talk concise.
Also, just like scheduling a meeting, leave a few minutes for possible response and brainstorming.
Another thing to keep in mind? Be on time. If you have scheduled this talk for 11 a.m. on Friday, then make sure you’re on time.
What Role Do Leaders Play?
Leading by example is often the first step in creating a sharing culture. Cain tells the story of Rick Fox, one of the leaders of a Shell Oil oil rig case in the Gulf of Mexico. Fox hired Lara Nuer, co-founder of Learning as Leadership, to solve problems with drilling schedules and oil production numbers. Following a conversation with Fox, Nuer revealed that his biggest problem was fear. Not only was the work dangerous, but also managing people and ensuring their safety.
As they worked together, Nuer encouraged them to speak with each other about their fears, including their personal problems. During the transition from a macho culture to one in which the men supported each other, the culture shifted from one of the hiding weaknesses or asking questions.
“There were fewer accidents because the guys on the rig got more comfortable opening up when they didn’t know how to do something or didn’t understand how something worked,” says Cain.
Leaders, however, may find it hard to share their own struggles, Cain notes. “At least one study suggests that confiding one’s troubles in subordinates can cause them to lose confidence in and comfort with you,” she says. “At the same time, the best way to shift a culture is for leadership to go first.”
Leaders don’t have to share all their problems. “They don’t need to speak to their employees the same way they’d talk to their therapist,” Cain adds. “It’s enough to move in the direction of open-heartedness.”
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