Positive Peer

  • February 02, 2024

Dear Advy,

I have an amazing team of colleagues that I work with, but I’ve started to notice that the group seems to get together a lot to gossip or “vent” about partners in the firm. While gossip is not something I partake in, I know a certain amount of venting is going to happen regardless. Stressful situations and different personalities are challenges in every workplace. The issue is that I’ve noticed this is group only seems to be “venting”, making each conversation both repetitive and negative. I’m worried if this continues, it will really foster a toxic environment. I don’t want to exclude myself from the group (we sometimes have a good deal of fun), but I’m having a hard time steering the conversations to more positive topics that aren’t necessarily work related. Any suggestions?

Positive Peer

Dear Positive Peer,

I hear you - I think everyone has been in this type of situation at one point or another. You are completely right that repetitive and negative gossip can turn a workplace toxic, and it can also impact psychological safety in the workplace.

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and your worries about being excluded due to not partaking in gossip indicates that you do not feel fully psychologically safe. At the same time, law is stressful, and we need to be able to vent within our support system – in a productive manner that does not amount to gossip. Good for you for looking for ways to steer the conversations to more positive topics and helping to prevent your workplace from becoming toxic.

Ultimately, your firm should have a Respectful Workplace Policy that clearly defines gossip, as folks may not know that they are gossiping, so having the definition provided to them can lead to self-awareness that will make them avoid it. But, on your own individual efforts, there are several strategies you can use to steer the conversation away from gossip, depending on what your level of comfort and safety is within your group of peers in the firm.

A non-confrontational, indirect way to avoid gossip is to simply walk away when the gossip begins. You can say that you have a tight deadline, so you do not have time to chat.

Another way is to change the subject. Raise something that is not work-related or ask a question about a work-related file. This seamlessly and quickly steers the conversation away from the gossip, and if it is by you asking for advice on a file, it actively engages your peers in critically thinking about the file instead.

If you feel safe and empowered enough, you can emphasize something the positive about the person being gossiped about. You can say that does not sound like the partner they are talking about, as you just had a file with them, and they provided some amazing mentorship to you.

Also, if you feel safe and empowered enough, you can call it out in a gentle way. For instance, you can say that it’s unfortunate that their experience wasn’t great as you just had a file with them, and they provided some amazing mentorship to you.

Another approach is that you can turn the conversation into action – try to solve the source of the frustrations with your co-worker. If they are frustrated with a partner, come up together with some ideas on how they can approach that partner to have a conversation about it or other ways to solve the situation. That way your venting co-worker still feels supported and safe with you, and you both have come up with a potential solution to the source of the frustration that will hopefully also contribute to a more positive overall work culture for the firm.

It goes without saying that another way to avoid gossip is to not gossip yourself and not repeat what co-workers have told you. Peer support mentors or counsellors with your respective lawyer assistance programs are a better source to “vent” to and can provide you with actionable ways to resolve the situation as well.

Be well,

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