The No. 1 way to waste time at work—and how to avoid it

It's normal to take a break at work for a little water cooler conversation, says Lisa Westman, an instructional coach who trains teachers and principals.

But when these conversations take a nasty turn toward gossip, they can both waste time and damage morale. Westman identifies three types of conversations to avoid, which she refers to as "the three biggest time killers."

  1. Judgement. It can be a form of bonding to swap opinions with colleagues about other people in the office, especially if you find that you have similar opinions. But, Westman warns, we often jump to conclusions that are unfounded. She also points out that talking about your difficult relationship with other people doesn't do much to change or improve your relationship with that person.
  2. Rumors. The irony with gossip is that it actually hurts the person who is doing it more than anyone else, Westman writes. She argues that spreading rumors and gossip eliminates the possibility of trust with the person you're talking to—lest they become the topic of your next rumor. Also, unless you're sincerely trying to fix whatever issue you're gossiping about, then it ends up being a waste of time and productivity, Westman writes.
  3. Negativity. Some people bond by venting about the common troubles we share at the office. But Westman warns that this kind of conversation invites you to blame others for problems and forget your own role in solving them. She adds that talking about problems tends to make people feel worse, not better.

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When you find yourself in one of these conversations, Westman recommends four strategies for escaping them:

  1. Let others know you're avoiding gossip. Westman recommends sharing with others that you're working on changing your conversation style. You might even find that they have good advice—or that they're inspired to change their own patterns as well.
  2. Don't join in. When your colleagues start to gossip, don't engage them at all, Westman writes. Silence might be awkward and imply tacit consent, so she recommends coming up with a mental bank of excuses to get away from the conversation, such as running to a meeting or an errand.
  3. Respectfully disagree. Acknowledge your colleague's perspective, but politely disagree by offering an alternative point of view that has a more positive spin.
  4. Change the topic. Westman borrows an acronym from another communication expert to help you remember more productive topics for small talk: "ICARE," or Interests, Convictions, Activities, Roles, and Experiences.

 (DeWitt/Westman, Education Week, 5/24).

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