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4 Ways You’re Unknowingly Stressing Out Your Coworkers


One of the biggest sources of work-related stress has little to do with the usual culprits, like email overload or the modern workplace’s myriad distractions. It comes from the way we ask each other for help—or rather, from the fact that we often don’t ask the right way, or even at all.

Many of us want to give our colleagues a hand but wind up contributing to their stress rather than relieving it, and vice versa. Instead of being helpful, we sometimes come up short or even make things worse. And in those cases, it’s less likely a colleague seeks out our help another time.


As Harvard Business School professors David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolispoint out in the Harvard Business Review, “Advice seekers and givers must clear significant hurdles, such as a deeply ingrained tendency to prefer their own opinions, irrespective of their merit, and the fact that careful listening is hard, time-consuming work.”

Many of us, especially if we’re feeling overworked and worn down anyway, seldom have the time or attentional bandwidth for that. So it’s no surprise, Garvin and Margolis write, that “the process can derail in many ways, and getting it wrong can have damaging consequences—misunderstanding and frustration, decision gridlock, subpar solutions, frayed relationships, and thwarted personal development—with substantial costs to individuals and their organizations.”

Stress, in other words, isn’t just about your tight deadlines or your working habits. It’s an interpersonal issue, and it hinges on how we communicate (or don’t) when we’re trying to help each other at work. Here are four of the most common scenarios that lead to stressful, failed efforts at offering assistance, and how to avoid them.


If your coworker confides in you that they’re having a problem, your natural assumption might be that they’re asking for your help with it. But people often just want someone they trust to listen, not necessarily help them sort things out. The simple act of vocalizing a problem can help us solve it on our own.

If you aren’t sure whether someone’s asking for your advice or just wants a listening ear, go ahead and ask: “Are you looking for ideas, or did you need a sounding board for this issue?”

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