But sometimes the boundaries get murky, and when that happens you will need to be ready to define them clearly, succinctly, and diplomatically (at least at first).
Say for example that you find out that a friend at work has shared personal information that you told them in confidence. You can say, “Gee, I thought I had asked you to keep that to yourself, but I heard that you told so-and-so.” Let your friend explain what happened. If she accidentally shared something she thought the other person knew, and she seems genuinely apologetic, you might feel okay letting it slide. But remind her that you need to feel that you can trust her, and you won’t be able to if it happens again. Or you might simply decide that you need to be more careful about what you share with her. Either way, you will be protecting your boundaries.
If your chatty friend just can’t wait to tell you about his most recent date while you’re in the middle of a project with a looming deadline, let him know that you’d love to hear about it, but not right now. Friends do provide cheerleading for one another, but the timing needs to be good for you both. Maybe you can suggest that you go out after work and he can tell you everything–and you’ll tell him all about your toddler’s first steps. If he keeps talking, it’s time to get a little firmer with your limit-setting. If at all possible, try not to get angry or hostile. In a straightforward, calm way, tell him that he needs to leave so that you can work. Or simply stop responding. Focus on your work. After a few minutes of not getting an answer from you, he will leave, although maybe with a couple of snarky comments.
Of course, these rules work both ways. It’s important that you respect your friends’ needs at work as well.
Here’s the other thing about any friendship: it needs to benefit both of you. Mutual support, including cheerleading when appropriate, is part of a work friendship. If it starts to feel one-sided, or the boundaries one of you need feel restrictive or hurtful to the other, then it might be time to consider what you are getting from the friendship. If the relationship is no longer working for you, you might want to find ways to quietly stop being available. Especially if the person is a boss or a supervisor, it can be helpful to remain warm and friendly, but simply be too busy to engage in social interchange. Something as simple as “I’d really love to chat, but I want this project to show off everything I’ve learned from you,” can soothe a former friend’s ego without putting you in the awkward position you want to avoid.
Work friendships can be extremely beneficial to you, your friend, and the company that employs you. But they require some work, as well. And when a work friendship creates more problems than it solves, it can be important to use your tact and interpersonal skills to gently shift the connection back to full work mode.
Diane Barth, LCSW is the author of “I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives” (to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 2018).