There are three kinds of work conversations; task conversations, relationship-building conversations, and gossip.
Task conversations are the ones focused on aspects of your work; exchanging information about what’s happening, who’s doing what, when it’s due, and what’s next. These are most common between co-workers, at meetings, and between bosses and their employees. These conversations are necessary and should be done within a spirit of mutual benefit and respect.
Relationship-building conversations are the ones that really build trust and rapport. These conversations focus on how people are doing, not what they are doing. There’s more emotional exchange, more support and empathy, and personal information exchanged. Relationship-building conversations are also necessary to have a safe, trusting work environment. If you have any concern about whether it’s appropriate to have a relationship-conversation at work, save it for the water cooler. It’s OK to talk about personal stuff at the water cooler.
Gossip is drama and comes in two forms; drama allies and drama adversaries. Drama allies are always looking for someone with whom to commiserate. They love to complain and are eager to suck you into their camp to gang up against others. They talk about people who aren’t there, complain about stuff they can’t control, and try to get everyone else to do their dirty work.
Drama adversaries are trolling for someone to with whom to pick a fight. Victims are looking for someone to save them, like a damsel in distress, or someone to attack or blame them and confirm that they are helpless. Rescuers are looking for Victims to save, and love to swoop in with their unsolicited advice. Persecutors are looking for Victims to attack and justify their worldview that people are basically lazy, selfish and untrustworthy. Does this sound like your water cooler?
Drama is what happens when people misappropriate their anxiety and conflict energy to feel justified about unhealthy behavior. The result is more adversarial interactions, less personal responsibility, and a ton of wasted energy and time.
Basic guidelines for workplace conversations
- Task conversations are always OK at work.
- Relationship-conversations are definitely OK at the water cooler, and sometimes OK during work if your culture supports it.
- Gossip is never OK.