How do I resign as confidante?
June 20, 2012 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I've unintentionally become the person that a coworker feels comfortable venting to, and in this case, I don't like it. How do I make it stop without causing too much trouble? [Hoo boy, this ended up long!]

The facts:
  • I work for a university. It's graduation time. Our last [fantastic] graduation coordinator left for a new position last year.
  • "Sandy" had a job as a director of a program within our school. Because of political squabbles that I don't quite understand, she was removed from that position and was made the school's events coordinator. She was in charge of graduation this year.
  • The person in charge of graduation is IN CHARGE of graduation, from start to finish.
  • Sandy either didn't understand this, or it wasn't explained to her, or she decided that being IN CHARGE meant being able to delegate the work (which has not historically been the case).
  • Those of us that she relied on for advice and answers uniformly felt like we did the bulk of the work, though the answers we gave her were intended to help HER do the work.
  • This has led to bad blood on all parts, and those of us who ended up doing most of the work have met to discuss where things fell apart. We have all agreed that it would be better for Sandy not to be the graduation coordinator next year, and are going to make that recommendation to the higher-ups, for better or for worse.
The complications:
  • Because we all stepped up and did more than our share, I spent two days alone with Sandy, helping her set up the venue.
  • During those two days, I found out that, boy oh boy, she is a complainer. She had something to say about everyone involved -- all of whom were bending over backwards to HELP her during her first year -- and it was all negative. Every time I walked into the room after going off to do other things, I was met with "Oh, I am so pissed off at _______. You won't believe what they just did."
  • I am polite, and I smiled and nodded. Since I know these people better than she does, I tried to offer some insight or context. It was always met with negativity. She didn't want advice on how to navigate the situation; she wanted to bitch. And bitch she did.
  • By the end of the whole thing, I didn't want to be in the same room with her. It's a week past now, and I've had a vacation, and I thought maybe it was over with.
  • She came in to my office today to complain about something one of those others did or said, doing it sotto voce, with that aggressive/negative energy, and finished with "I just wanted to slap her!"
My dilemma:
  • I don't want to be the person who knows the list of everyone Sandy wants to slap on a given day. I can problem solve, and am always happy to do so, but that's not what she's interested in.
  • I'm getting the sense that Sandy feels like it's Us vs. Them, but I don't want to be part of Us, and I agree quite a bit more with Them.
  • I very much feel like I'm being put in the middle. I work closely with the people she's complaining about, and it's uncomfortable for me. I want to defend them, or explain them, but she doesn't listen.
  • I want to put a stop to this, but don't want to piss her off or hurt her feelings, especially since she may find out that I am one of the people who is asking the Deans to remove her from graduation duty.
  • The best tactic I currently have is to nod, smile, and act disinterested, but she doesn't notice disinterest. I'm afraid that by being blunt, I may make things worse and make her feel more alienated than she already does.
  • Being the peacekeeper is hard sometimes, but I feel that that's my role in this scenario.
How do I resign as confidante?
posted by mudpuppie to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you insist on being the peacekeeper, you will always be the peacekeeper! Smiling and nodding will not make any impact on a person like this - they thrive on taking advantage of people who won't defend their boundaries. If you don't want to know the list - you have to tell her.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:08 PM on June 20, 2012

You don't resign, because you never signed on in the first place.

She vents to EVERYONE about EVERYONE, to you about others, to others about you. If you think you aren't the object of her ridicule and complaints to other people when you aren't around you are being naive.

You do not own any part of this.

If you want to end it, say "I'm not going to listen your complaints anymore. I can't help you."


You could just let it be and ignore it. I am going to guarantee you in 6 months or less, someone higher up is going to pull you aside after she tries to throw someone under the bus and say these exact words:

"...we do consider the source..."
posted by roboton666 at 7:09 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was recently around a group of teenage girls when one of the girls started to complain about another who wasn't present. My friend's daughter piped up at that point and said, "Oh, let's not gossip," and changed the subject. I thought it was an incredibly graceful and effective strategy. It doesn't put you on a "side," and it isn't so subtle that she won't notice. If you actually want to be the peacekeeper, encourage peace.
posted by looli at 7:10 PM on June 20, 2012 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I would make a personal plea to her, using parts of what you said here:

"Sandy, I try to live my life in a positive manner and it's hard for me to deal with this negative feedback. I'm the kind of person who would rather find a solution to a problem than just vent about it, and the venting just burdens me. If there's something specific I can do to help you with a problem, my door is always open to you and I sincerely want to help. But I get along great with everyone here and it makes me uncomfortable to hear these bad things about my other friends. I just can't be that kind of sounding board for you any longer, but I really want to make this professional relationship work for both of us. I'm sure you can understand and I appreciate your cooperation on this."

This is the most polite way I think of to end it. If she can't or won't stop after this, then you can move forward in a more aggressive manner with a clear conscience, knowing that you gave her a chance to respond like an adult.
posted by raisingsand at 7:17 PM on June 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

Nodding and smiling are ineffective because they demonstrate passive acceptance/agreement. You've already tried a form of mediation, which didn't work. But, you don't have to be super blunt with her, at least not yet. It's all in the delivery. I like raisingsand idea but experience tells me that complainers don't like long speeches. Be brief, but clear: "It makes me uncomfortable to be put in the middle between you and the others, so unless I can help you with something specific I would prefer we didn't have these kinds of conversations."

Now, will it work? Most likely she will either keep trying to vent, to which you will need to respond with more blunt and aggressive reactions, and it is incredibly likely her venting about you will increase. The main problem with gossipers is that they rarely see it as gossip; they are just "telling it like it is." But seriously, let her dig her own hole. It's not your job to keep her feelings from being hurt (and you're being polite, not bitchy, anyway) nor your role to be peacekeeper.
posted by sm1tten at 7:24 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could confront her with "I'm uncomfortable with office gossip" or vaguer "I'm uncomfortable with these sort of conversations" and change the subject. Or when she comes in to gossip, always stare blankly, no smile, no feedback and say "Hmmm...have to go get a file from Frank" or some other errand. Do this repeatedly. You will end up on her bad side probably but on the plus side, she won't delegate her work to you.
posted by biscuits at 7:39 PM on June 20, 2012

This reminds me, vaguely, of "Why Don't You - Yes, But" from Games People Play, by Eric Berne.

Basically, it's a structure to an interaction where one person complains about something, suggestions are made, and then shot down. The person doing the complaining is simultaneously trying to confirm their own powerlessness over the situation and assert power by vetoing the suggestions.

Berne's suggestion is to put the onus on the other person by asking them what they are going to do about it, simply agree that it's a difficult problem, or to change the subject. In your context, the first choice would probably be the best one.
posted by alphanerd at 7:52 PM on June 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would just play up the good things about the people involved. She will clearly understand that you are actually on their side. I disagree with the notion that you are automatically on her crap list.

...although I do have to say I'm shocked that only one person is in charge of graduation and isn't expected to delegate ("in charge" doesn't mean "to do everything oneself" - being "in charge" goes hand-in-hand with delegation). Unless your college has a graduating class of only ten students I would have to say if people did not chip in with the work (and I mean legwork *work*, not merely helpful suggestions) or did so only grudgingly, she may be feeling under appreciated, and imo rightly so. We had a graduation that took less than an hour and we had over twenty faculty/staff members involved, and each portion of the ceremony was handled by different people - people who delegated minor tasks to others.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:19 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, you could disagree with her, politely, just once about something you feel strongly about, and that might put an end to it. She is looking for a sympathetic ear, so any push back may shut her down entirely. This may add you to her list of people who suck, but that matters very little, if everyone's opinion of her is so low. Another tactic is to listen to her disinterestedly with a "hmm" & "is that so?" but I suspect this is what you've been doing to some extent and that tactic has clearly backfired. You can say you don't want to gossip or change the subject and maybe that would work, but I don't feel like you will really be heard when you make those statements. She's complaining to you because she thinks you are a receptive audience. If you start dropping some science & saying things that conflict with her point of view, she will look elsewhere for validation. If you can do it diplomatically, you may avoid becoming another one of her imagined enemies, but any dissonance could lump you firmly in with "them," which, while not preferable, isn't so bad considering that's where you want to be. You sound like a kind person who wants to spare this person's feelings. The only way to do that is to try to engage her in a dialogue which challenges her statements and then find other topics you do enjoy talking about and aren't so conflict-ridden. She won't like being challenged most likely, but other neutral topics might keep the relationship in the neutral/cordial zone. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 8:26 PM on June 20, 2012

"Oh, I am so pissed off at Bob! You won't believe what he just did."

"Let me go get Bob."

posted by anildash at 10:03 PM on June 20, 2012 [11 favorites]

When you smile and nod politely, you're effectively saying, "Hey Sandy, I completely understand where you're coming from! Please tell me more." Instead, point out that the things she's complaining about are unfounded or trivial or make sense from the other person's point of view.

Sandy: "OMG you will not believe with Bob just did! [Describes what Bob did.]"

You: "Well, Bob probably did this because of x, y, z reasons."

She'll stop venting to you once she stops getting the validation of her complaints that she's looking for.
posted by billybunny at 11:11 PM on June 20, 2012

In my experience complainers sometimes just want to express their feelings and blow off some steam. The squeaky wheel gets the grease after all. I doubt Sandy is looking for solutions, and I suspect she doesn't realise how this bitching affects your relationships with the rest of the team. Maybe a gentler version of "look, these people are my colleagues too and I want to get along with them" would help her see that she is putting you in the middle of an awkward situation.

I agree you are not automatically on her craplist, in fact I wonder if she views you as her only ally in a sea of hostile people. So katemcd's suggestion about neutral topics is a good one - she can still get the attention it sounds like she needs but also find a better way to relate to people.

I'm also wondering if anyone has expressly spoken to her about the expectation that she do all the work herself and not delegate. I don't know if there is more you haven't included, but it seems like a bit of a jump from "delegates too much and is unappreciative of help" to "being reported to the Dean and requested that she not do the same role again next year." Perhaps you have a bit of guess culture here that she is not picking up on?
posted by EatMyHat at 2:41 AM on June 21, 2012

I have a similar situation at work...I have no idea why people decide I'm their venting board, but once I realized how much it was stressing me out listening to their gripes, I simply started saying, "I can see that you're upset and I know everyone needs to vent, but I'm just not comfortable listening to this right now. I hope you can work this all out."

It's incredibly stressful to be put in that situation and I really do empathize, but the only thing you can do to maintain your sanity is to tell people that you're not comfortable hearing it (especially when you do try to actively problem solve and it becomes clear that's not what they're looking for).

Best of luck.
posted by kinetic at 4:00 AM on June 21, 2012

"I feel uncomfortable hearing this. Sue is my friend."
posted by bunderful at 4:54 AM on June 21, 2012

You can't feed strays and not expect them to come back for more food.

You've been feeding Sandy's need for validation, and apparently you put out quite a spread. You're going to have to cut her off. A lot of scripts and ideas posted are good ones.

You don't have to make a big deal about this with her. Next time she comes in to vent with you, stop her. You've been given some excellent ways of doing this.

Be polite, be firm. At the end of the day, do you really give a rat's ass what Sandy thinks of you? If so, why?

In fact, I'd be inclined to turn it back around on her. "You know Sandy, you come in here and complain a lot about folks. I understand that you feel the need to vent, but I think you've overlooked the fact that you failed rather miserably on the whole graduation thing. You were supposed to be in charge of planning and executing and instead, you had all of us here running around for you. Frankly, many people are quite resentful of you now. I'm resentful because not only have I been going above and beyond to help you out with graduation, I'm a buffer between you and the legion of people that you've pissed off. So why don't you turn your happy ass back around and go back to your office and think about how badly you've been acting towards people who have done nothing but help you out."

Of course, I'm a Ruthless Bunny, YMMV.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:49 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, I've had this dilemma recently. Luckily, it was a temporary placement. But I also endorse the blank stare and/or dart your eyes frantically over your desk or monitor. Pretend you've missed all of what she just said. Then, ask a complete non-sequitur question after she's done talking.
posted by obscurator at 6:55 AM on June 21, 2012

I was in this position and it was exhausting. At the end of our meetings I was depressed and drained. I wasn't surprised in the least to find the person bitched about me as well, bitched to one team about another and vice versa. My solution was to avoid and ignore them, but this didn't really work. You're probably best off disagreeing with her. Don't hesitate to let others know that bitching is her standard method of operation, lest someone take her seriously.
posted by xammerboy at 7:19 AM on June 21, 2012

Tactics I've used when I've found myself in a similar situation:

1) Saying "I don't know what to tell you about that." Sometimes repeating exactly those same words to everything the person says that is a complaint. By the fourth or fifth time I say it, either they get frustrated with not having their complaints validated, or they get the message that I'm not going to participate in their little game.

2) Asking, "Have you spoken directly to X about this?" Sometimes a follow-up with, "I think I'll call X right now so we can deal with how you feel about this." Usually a person doing this kind of venting isn't actually doing anything to solve what they perceive to be problems, and letting them know that you take solving the issues more seriously than anything else will make them stop venting toward you. (It will, of course, mean you will be the subject of their venting when you're not around.) I

3) I've also said "Don't put me in the middle like this, because the first thing I do when I'm put in the middle is tell everyone what is being said about them." In your case, you may need to start with, "You know, I've decided that I don't want to be in the middle like this anymore, so I have a new policy..." Make sure you follow through, preferably right in front of them so they know it isn't an empty threat. It takes bravery and a willingness to stir the pot a bit, but it will get it all to stop.

4) With people who don't take the hint from those first tactics, I've finally resorted to saying, "If you're going to talk like this, I can't be around you" AND THEN WALKING AWAY. No matter what needs to be done, no matter if you don't have anywhere else to go. Gather your things and leave.

Start keeping a diary where you write down everything she delegates that she shouldn't, every time she complains about someone else (how much detail about the complaint or whether it's just that she complained, that's up to you), and whatever else you will need should this woman start attacking you to her superiors and they come toward you. Keeping such a document will greatly aid you should it come down to a who-did-what-to-whom kind of thing with the administration. (I will admit, my suggestion here stems from workplace paranoia after a really horrible workplace bullying/mobbing thing which was directed at me for about 3 years, so it may not apply to you.)

Ultimately, you're not responsible for this woman's sense of alienation, or what seems to be her utter inability to do the job actually assigned to her.

Next year, don't do anything to help her with any of her assignments. If in the past the position has been expected to run on its own, don't become her savior. Let her fail, let her superiors see her failing, and she'll be gone.
posted by hippybear at 7:44 AM on June 21, 2012

I'm afraid that by being blunt, I may make things worse and make her feel more alienated than she already does.

You might be doing her a favor that nobody else cared to do or had the nerve to do. Everyone is being all friendly and politely pitching in so as to not rock the boat, and behind her back, arranging to have her responsibilities taken away. I know that's how big organizations (especially academia) tend to work and the messenger gets shot all the time. But she probably has no earthly idea how her behavior comes across; no one has flat-out told her it's unprofessional and hurting her career.

I'd probably take the easy way out myself and avoid her. Though maybe you should push back on her characterizations of other people.

I just wanted to slap [X]!

Well, I like [X] fine. She and I have always worked very well together.
posted by citron at 9:20 PM on June 21, 2012

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