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The Trouble with Gossip

I remember first hearing that saying when I was young child. While I get the intent, in my mind, this is one the most confusing and ass-backward concepts we could possibly be teaching to our kiddos. Because as we all know, words do hurt. And the effects of our words can have a lifelong impact on the people who are hurt by them.

There are many ways we can use our words to hurt others, both intentional and unintentional.

But there’s one way to verbally hurt others that’s especially tricky. It’s sneaky, subversive and at least to me, somewhat irresistible and even enticing. (I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I’ve always struggled a bit with this in my personal life…it’s one of the biggest things I’m working on. Still. At 36.)

The type of verbal harm I’m most inclined to participate in is gossip.

Gossip is a very dangerous and toxic poison in both our personal and professional lives.

We often are in denial about our role in perpetuating gossip, but truthfully, anything we say that robs another person of their reputation qualifies as gossip. Consider the following:

  • Labeling (criticism or condemnation) of any kind – calling someone else’s behavior or decisions wrong, silly, dumb, stupid, etc. are all forms of gossip because it means we’re applying judgment to another person’s life
  • Feigned concern – this is when we discuss things that are happening to others, i.e. divorce, infidelity, death. We often feel justified when sharing this type of gossip because a. The thing we’re sharing is true and b. We may genuinely be sad for them. It’s still gossip. When we aren’t using our words to better that person or the situation, it’s gossip.
  • Anytime you share something you admittedly might have wrong – this is probably the most common form of gossip. In this case, we’re just sharing something that was passed onto us. Generally, we tend to feel less guilty because we weren’t the original source. (As if that really matters.)

All of these are examples of gossip and because sometimes, dishing the dirt “feels so good”, it can be especially difficult to break the habit.

Here are a few ideas on how to deal with gossip:

  1. Decide that you do not want to gossip.

Yes, this seems obvious, but without a commitment, either verbal or nonverbal, it will be very hard to resist the temptation to hop on the gossip-train once it starts rolling down the track.

2. Differentiate between gossip and everything else.

If you’re personally involved in a difficult situation, you are allowed to share your feelings (even the negative ones) with someone. There is a big difference between venting about a situation to a close confidante and telling everyone up at the bar that the person you’re struggling with is a bitch. (Who, let’s be honest, is probably cheating on her husband.) See what I did there?

It’s perfectly natural to want to vent about a situation or person that’s causing you grief. But in doing so, the goal is to unburden your heart and hopefully, look for some suggestions to improve the situation. You’re not griping simply to let everyone know how awful you think the person is.

3. Deal with gossip as it happens.

If you care for the person being talked about, you could say something like, “I don’t feel comfortable having this discussion without her here.” or “What do you think her side of this situation is?” I realize this is perhaps a bit risky and maybe puts a bit of a target on your back, but in this case, if you genuinely consider the person a friend, defending them is probably the right thing to do.

If that feels too direct, you can always change the subject or simply casually walk away.

The bottom line is this: gossip, in order to be effective, requires an audience. The smaller the audience, the less satisfying it is. By making a conscious choice to walk away, you’re telling everyone there that you don’t want to participate. It makes you seem like someone others believe can be trusted.

4. Ask yourself what is to be gained by sharing what you’re about to share.

In the case where we’re sharing something we heard, verified as true or not, we need to pause and ask ourselves the question ‘What is the point of sharing this? Who am I helping by sharing this?’

Unless you can solve the problem personally or the other party can, it may be best to keep it to yourself.

5. Avoid people that make a habit of belittling other people.

The truth is, if they’re talking about others, they’re just as likely talking about you when you’re not there.

Today, pay attention to what you find yourself talking about; Are you talking about people, events, or ideas?

Use your words to build others up, instill confidence, and provide encouragement.

Other to-do: Pay attention to how much you hear others doing it. Ask yourself regularly if spending time with these people is good for your soul. Use your words for good. They are far more powerful than you realize.

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