I enjoy keeping in touch with ex-colleagues who I’m friends with, but not when the conversation revolves around work and my old workplace. How can I steer the conversation in a different direction when this happens?

Elaine Varelas provides tips to help guide your conversations with old workplace friends.

Q. I left my former company a few years ago, and keep in touch with and am friends with several ex-colleagues. When we talk, they spend a lot of time venting about work, talking about my ex-colleagues, and most of the conversation is solely about work. How can I redirect future conversations to make them more enjoyable for me? I still want to maintain our friendships, but I don’t need to hear about all their work problems.

A. One of the challenges of connecting with former colleagues is the majority of what you have in common is your former work environment. Because you know the players, you understand the challenges, they feel very comfortable letting you know what's going on, the things that are aggravating them, etc. And you become a very safe space to vent. Whether they are just airing their grievances, gossiping, or would just love to talk, you need to decide how much of this kind of interaction you're willing to take. While a little bit of gossip might be entertaining, having the same negative conversation over and over is certainly not why you want to connect with this person. If part of what they're talking about is very positive, then that can be very exciting. If we're celebrating former colleagues’ engagements, marriages, babies, vacations, etc., it provides for a very different interaction.

Part of the onus of redirecting this conversation is on you and asking very pointed questions. How are things going in your personal life? What is new with your children and how are they doing? Any exciting trips or vacations planned? Ask very open-ended questions that have nothing to do with work. You may decide to start the conversation by talking about a hobby or a wonderful place that you recently visited. The conversation will hopefully be in tennis match fashion where the topic goes back and forth and then is changed. If they are truly looking for your guidance and your insight on a work topic they initiate, you can certainly offer them guidance, support, and empathy. And you can offer a suggestion that they find someone internally at work who can fill that role for them, because everyone needs some kind of support, and hopefully it can be found within the organization.

These conversations can also be problematic if your friend brings up confidential company information that no one knows. If they start by saying, "No one knows this yet as it’s not public," interrupt them and say, "Then don't tell me." It might be uncomfortable for them. They might be startled at your reaction. Disclosing confidential information about a company can put their job at risk and puts you in an uncomfortable position. And if they say, "Why don't you want to know?”, you can say, "I don't want your job to be at risk based on a conversation you're having with me. We really shouldn’t talk about any confidential information. Tell me the good news that's happening at the company.” And leave it at that. They should know that this might be considered insider trading or a breach of their confidentiality agreement with their company.

Most conversations will have some catching up about the place and people where you used to work together. But as time goes on, you will know fewer and fewer people. You will be less invested in what's happening at the organization. It's up to you if you want to maintain and develop a friendship to change the trajectory of those conversations and interactions. If you want this person to remain as a networking type of connection, then your old work may remain the focus of the conversation. You need to decide what kind of relationship you want to have and guide the conversation accordingly.