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It’s Friday, time for columnist Coco McCann. Today, Coco covers the thorny issue of dealing with a co-worker who constantly talks about others.

Dear Coco,

I work with a man who continually complains and criticizes colleagues whenever we are alone. I feel that he should work out his problems with these people directly or simply accept their differences, but I’m afraid if I don’t listen or offer support, he may be offended. It’s an uncomfortable situation for me. What should I do?––Conflicted in Kansas

Dear Conflicted in Kansas,

How do you feel about being a marionette? That’s what you become when your co-worker habitually describes a colleague’s shortcomings and you tell him how correct he is —just to keep the rain from falling on you. It’s called a triangle.

You’ve used two words that influence my answer: “continually” and “afraid.” If someone continually complains or criticizes, it usually suggests a critical nature that may be unconscious for him. If the behavior seems common, then anyone who works with your colleague is subjected to the same type of judgment and murmuring–and that includes you.

It may seem that your colleague is taking you into close confidence. But when you are not around, there is one thing you can be almost certain of: he is complaining about YOU to the very same people he has been ridiculing. It’s one of those freaks of human nature.

You are afraid for a good reason. Every time you hear negative statements about your colleagues or their work, you may wonder if anyone has an unvoiced complaint about you. If so, you may wish for a chance to bridge that gap. But how can you if you don’t know about it? You may even begin to have subtle doubts about the person who is subject of the complaint, which is sometimes part of your whiney co-worker’s intention.

Secrecy equals fear.

Your critical colleague may keep a sense of power or superiority by keeping the secrecy machine roaring at top speed. In this way, he is always superior to you and anyone else who doesn’t catch on. People are often immobilized by fear. Even when we know better, fear may keep us from doing the right thing.

Your best bet is to ask a simple question. “Have you talked about this with Joel?” If the answer is no, then encourage him to try a direct approach to see if he can resolve the problem. Admit your own imperfections and add that you would appreciate knowing if your professional conduct* is objectionable to others. Suggest that your colleague probably feels the same way. (*I’m assuming that all this conversation revolves around professional conduct. If not, it has no place in your work life. You can curtail it with a stony face and taciturn statement that expresses your complete lack of interest.)

Finally, be puzzled or be busy. “That’s odd,” you might say. “Joel always says such nice things about you.” Say this only if it’s true; it’s such a well-used tactic that your colleague might sense he is being played. Excusing yourself from the conversation due to busyness may also discourage future gripe sessions. But beware: both tactics can backfire. In rare cases, some complainers may turn up the volume on their complaints about you when you refuse a role in their drama.

Of course, there are exceptions to this advice. If a co-worker who rarely complains or criticizes approaches you, handle this very carefully. It’s possible that he or she is being bullied or sabotaged in the workplace. Bullying isn’t just a junior high problem. One out of four Americans is bullied at work according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. In these cases, you must encourage the potential victim to seek help from a manager who can arbitrate the situation.

It’s also completely normal to discuss or sense-check a one-off work situation as long as both parties have a stake in the work and the purpose of the conversation is to clarify and resolve the problem with a win-win solution. There’s a big difference between discussions centered around peace and problem-solving and those that never lead to resolution.

If you have a question about sticky social situations, from office politics to modern etiquette, send your letters to Coco McCann at coco@dressedherdaysvintage.com.

What’s the best tactic you’ve ever used to uplift others and discourage office gossip? 

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.