A reader asks:
I have a colleague, Belinda, who's always stressed out. We're all busy and juggling multiple priorities, but our workloads aren't unreasonable or excessive. Most people just get on with it and steadily, calmly get their work done -- whereas there's always a sense of chaos around Belinda. She makes a much bigger deal out of everything than necessary and takes up a lot of other people's time talking about how busy and overloaded she is. But her own work habits are what make things more complicated and difficult, which then of course makes them take more time, putting her further behind ... and then we hear all about it. She also tries to get anyone working with her to use 25 steps for something you can easily do in two.
I would like to find a way of saying something to her when this impacts me. What I wish I could say is:
• When you make a huge deal out of everything, I start to feel quite stressed. I'm not sure if you realize that it affects the people working with you. It makes the atmosphere needlessly unpleasant. I don't want you to share your stress with me.
• Please stop telling me about how busy you are or how you've got lots of emails you haven't managed to read or anything at all about your workload or how you feel about it. You always mention these things in a way that makes them seem like they're relevant and necessary (e.g., "I can't help do X as I have 15 Y to deal with"), but you give too much information in too much intense detail and it feels like you're venting at me. Please just say you can't help as you need to focus on Y at the moment and stop there.
• Have you ever noticed that the people who spend less time talking about how busy and stressed they are also get more done and are happier and calmer and much more pleasant to work with? Have you ever logged the amount of time you spend moaning and generally being like a sort of office Dementor who sucks the joy out of anything I have the misfortune to collaborate on with you?
Are any of those things I can somehow convey (probably not the last one!), and if so, do you have any suggestions for how to say them? Or do I just need to suck it up?
Ugh, secondhand stress. I just had a version of this conversation with my mom, who genuinely derives pleasure from discussing all the minor aggravations of her week. In detail. Lots of detail. I'm pretty sure it relaxes her to do this, but it was leaving me tense every time we talked. I've tried to imposed a ban on it, but only one of us remembers the ban.
Anyway, I think you could say versions of the first two things you want to say -- although, yeah, probably not that last one unless you're very close with her (which it doesn't sound like you are).
The easiest part of this is pushing back when she tries to get you to use 25 steps for something you can do in two. It's fine to just say, "I don't think I'll do it quite like that, but I'll get it taken care of" or even to not get into it at all and just say you'll cover it, without giving her details about how.
The spewing stress everywhere is a harder issue. For that, I'd start by saying something in the moment when it's happening, since that will usually come across as less of a big deal than a whole separate "we need to talk" conversation will.
So, for example, when she's pouring her stress all around, say something like, "You sound really stressed out, and it's stressing me out!" Or "You're making me panic from how stressed you sound, and it's making it harder to stay calm and focused." Or even just, "You're stressing me out right now."
And when she's overloading you with details about why she can't help with something, you can cut in with, "Hey, I don't need an explanation -- just knowing that you can't help right now is all I need. Thanks." If she keeps going, you can say, "Ack, too many details! I'll just consider you a no for this."
If you say this kind of thing a few times, who knows, she may start pulling it back around you. But assuming that it continues, you'll now have set the stage to more easily have a bigger-picture conversation with her. That would mean saying something like, "Can I talk to you about something? When you talk a lot about how overloaded and stressed you are, it can make the environment in general more stressful. If you're that stressed all the time, I think you should talk to (manager) -- but I wanted to ask if you can be aware that talking about it so much can end up really spreading that stress around."
You could add, "I don't mean to sound unsympathetic, especially when I know you're feeling frazzled. But I've found that it really does take me from calm to anxious, and I imagine it probably does for you, too."
That said ... to some extent, this is probably just part of the package of working with Belinda, unless her manager is willing to coach her on it. So more than trying to get her to change what she's doing, I'd focus most of your energy on setting your own boundaries -- cutting her off, declining to engage, and asking her in the moment to stop spewing stress on you.
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