I emphasize over and over how important it is to speak to someone directly.  I had one man ask me, “But what if I’m talking to someone else as a sounding board?”  Sounding boards are sneaky.

At their best, sounding boards help you work through a concern, consider your contribution to the situation, assess your assumptions and triggers and mold your phrasing.  A genuine sounding board will insist on follow-through communication and will check in afterwards.

At their worst, sounding boards become dark corners of veiled gossip.  Your sounding board understands and relates.  You receive validation and do nothing because you feel better and righteous.  Nothing has been resolved and your cohort’s perception of the other person has changed without that other person having an opportunity to speak to their experience or intentions. The frustration will continue. Instead of supporting you in repairing the relationship, your sounding board has unwittingly reinforced your commitment to being liked and right.

Another possibility is that your sounding board, with the best of intentions, will offer to speak to the person you’re struggling with.  This doesn’t work.  It simply encourages cumbersome and troublesome triangulation.  Intentions get misrepresented.  Facts get twisted.  Understanding further away.

Let’s say you’re the trusted advisor. You want to support your co-worker, and you don’t want to gossip. What do you do?   “Hey Carol, I know you’re frustrated with Susie.  I’d struggle with this too.  You really need to talk to her directly.  We’re all in this department together and when the two of you don’t get along, it impacts all of us.  I know you two can figure it out. You’re both smart, capable people with good intentions.  I want what’s best for you and the team.  If you want to talk through how to have the conversation with her, I’m happy to help.  But I don’t want to talk about Susie unless you’re going to reach out to her directly.”

P.S. For more examples on how to handle tricky situations in your workplace, read Culture Works: How to Create Happiness in the Workplace