I have time to listen to what is happening with people in my organization"

"How are you doing?"

On Fridays and in the summertime, people tend to drift into ad-hoc conversations about their weekend plans, soccer games, football season and end-of-summer last-hurrah vacation plans.  Sound familiar?  

Much of this "water cooler" coffee-break conversation is fantastic.  It's what we've been talking about when we mention "a good cup of coffee" at the workplace, and casual hallway chats.  All very healthy things for an organization.

Avoid the core-dump
What happens when "listening" becomes more than a 2-minute update or rave about a restaurant or beach?  What happens when that "how are you doing today?" results in a core-dump about everything that's not working in your co-workers life, including kids, spouses, love life, politics and the state of the world?  >Arghhh<

Be human, and set limits
There is a happy balance and it's important to be a real human being, to have empathy and be truly interested in what your co-workers are saying and feeling.  Knowing how to draw the line and cut-off this kind of cascade into total productivity sabotage is important.  Perhaps you can say "hey- I'm really interested in your sister-in-law's car problems, but I've got a 9:30 call.  Can we pick this up at lunch?"  Make up an appointment and beg-off so the person is not offended.   

Think of 140 characters 
If the "how's it going?" results in a tirade about work, and the unfair or unjust state of affairs, this is different.  To be frank, when most people ask "how are you?"  they don't want the "real" answer if it's complex or lengthy. It's a cultural courtesy, akin to a friendly waive and smile.  They really don't want to hear any bad news....or any great news for that matter, if it takes longer than the verbal equivalent of 140 characters.  Really.

Listen for real work-related issues
However, if you hear real pain in a co-worker's lament about "what's happening" in their work-life, listen carefully to make sure you're picking up cues that may be consistent across your entire organization.  Resentment about perceived unequal treatment or unreasonable expectations can build and blow-up important projects, teams and even offices.  It's not pretty.  So be on the lookout for this, whether you supervise others or not.  

Re-direct and be neutral
Now what to do about it.  That's a bit more tricky.  You don't want to sink hours or even dozens of minutes into this murky area, so it's important to listen, but be empathetic to the point of asking some leading questions such as: "have you brought this up with So-and-so?"  And: "would it make sense to share your feelings with XYZ?" And: "what do you see happening if this doesn't resolve itself?"  

Act cautiously and carefully
Should you surface these "complaints" and issues back to your management?   Typically not, unless what you're hearing sounds like hot issues such as harassment, discrimination, tyrant bosses, bullying, or unreasonable expectations.  You should not advocate for the complaining person.   You should just share "hey, I think I was hearing something that was unsettling.  I may be wrong, but I wanted to share it with you to follow-up."  You don't want to be manipulated by someone else's drama, and yet you also don't want to allow colleagues to suffer really bad situations that need remedy as well.  It's a tough line to walk.

Bottom line, you want to make time to listen to "what's happening" with others at work. 

Here are some tips to set limits:
-Set a time limit and defer gory detail and pictures to a break or lunch
-Restrict topics and defer conversations about love life, politics and other juicy items to a break or after work
-Avoid "complaining" sessions about co-workers, bosses or others 
-Never offer to solve someone else's problems.  Never.
-Do not get sucked-into others' drama.  Listen and help direct them to take their own actions.
-Focus on work topics, projects and other positive or "appropriate" topics that are worth spending talk-time.
-Be positive and try hard to remind your co-worker that you have to get back to your work.

Be friendly, patient and open.  You'll learn a lot.
Follow these guidelines and you will be a "friendly listener" and also get a good sense of what's happening inother projects, working groups and get valuable new perspectives about your projects.  Everybody likes to talk about themselves.  That's okay.  Just set limits.  Remember that when someone asks you "hey, how's it going with you?"

Have a fantastic weekend!   (And please just send a link to your photos so I don't have to waste time at work looking at them with you).  :)