When the Feeling Isn’t Mutual: How to Keep a Colleague at Arm’s Length

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Got questions about life? Love? Parenting? Work? Write to Whit’s End, a new advice column by local husband, father, teacher, coach, former executive and former Marine Corps officer Al Whitaker.  Each week Al will address readers’ questions about anything ranging from school issues, coaching problems, relationship quandaries and more!  His experience is vast, and he holds a degree in psychology, too. To submit a question, email [email protected]

Dear Whit,

I have a colleague at work whom I am neutral about personally but who also makes me feel a bit uncomfortable because I sense that he wants to develop a closer friendship with me than I think two professionals should have in the workplace. We work in a relatively small organization, in which we frequently collaborate but also compete from time to time. It is essential that everyone get along well, so I definitely want to maintain cordiality with this person. However, I also want to preserve enough professional distance from him that I am not hampered in doing what I think I need to do to succeed in my job.

This is the kind of situation I find myself in with this individual that sends up warning signs for me: We will be sitting at lunch, talking about the job, sports, social situations, or something neutral, and this person will drop a remark about, say, his feelings toward another member of our office that seems to me to reveal some pretty unprofessional attitudes on his part because they have nothing to do with the job. Or worse, he will complain about something that’s going on in his personal life outside the office, and I feel like he’s trying to turn me into his therapist. It gives me the creeps to know some of this stuff about a guy I am supposed to respect and work well with, especially when it makes him seem so needy.

What also makes me feel that the personal/professional boundary is being crossed is that he will invite me to a party at his house in an attempt to make me seem like his buddy. In addition to my not wanting to socialize with him, my wife doesn’t like him and thinks that he has a dysfunctional relationship with his girlfriend. But, in the past, because I don’t want to be rude, I have accepted the invitation and gone anyway, reluctant spouse included. Even if he weren’t so needy, I think I would still prefer to maintain professional distance.

My dilemma is that I can’t just blow him off because I need to remain on good terms with him, but if I act interested, he will continue to pursue me. So, I shy away from definitively turning him off or turning him down in a way that might embarrass him or make him resent me.

Do you have any suggestions about how I can straddle the line between friendship and collegiality a little bit more comfortably with this guy?

Dude with a Dilemma

Dear Dude,

Sounds like somebody is asking you to play a bit part in his personal drama. Normally, I would recommend being assertive with people whose behavior puts you in an awkward position. My guiding principle when having to deliver a potentially alienating message to someone is to be direct, firm, and kind; however, in this case, because you need to continue to work with this person, you will have to be less direct to avoid creating resentment.  Being kind is still necessary, but being firm is the sine qua non of dealing with the chronically needy.

A person who doesn’t recognize boundaries is not self-aware enough to realize that he has crossed them, even when it’s pointed out to him. Instead, he will rationalize that the other person is being critical and unfair. So, you will need to be oblique to protect yourself. In the past, your attempts to avoid rudeness have actually encouraged him to regard you as a confidant.

To get out of that role, you will have to resist responding in a way that leads to further discussion when he talks about other colleagues or his personal affairs. For instance, you can say, “Uh huh” and nod your head, or you can change the subject to a topic that is only superficially related. Above all, you don’t want to give him an explicit response that he can interpret as disapproval or rejection.

When he invites you to a party or for a drink, simply say that you are sorry you can’t make it—no explanations, no apologies, no deception. Don’t volunteer any information, and don’t tell any white lies.

Stay polite but non-committal in your conversations so that he won’t get what he needs: an approving audience for his emotional theatrics. You don’t need to walk out on his performance, but don’t give him a standing any ovations either; in fact, maybe a “golf clap” would be the best kind of applause.

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