Everything Nobody Ever Told Me: How to Stop Office Gossip in Its Tracks

“What you don't see with your eyes, don't witness with your mouth.” -Jewish Proverb

My friend Jen used to describe her best friend since childhood, Tracy, as a complete screw-up.  Every time she would mention her, she would roll her eyes and bring up Tracy’s latest failed relationship or the crazy man in her life.  I had never met Tracy and I have to admit, without any other evidence to the contrary, I began to think of Tracy as a screw-up too. 

I attended a social gathering at Jen’s house one evening and was speaking to a woman who was bright, articulate and had recently left her cushy job as a consultant and started her own business.  Being her own boss allowed her to jet about the world, exploring fascinating places, with some really good friends.  What a great life she has, I thought to myself.

Can you guess who the woman was?  Yes, it was Tracy, “the screw-up”.  Tracy certainly seemed to have a darn near perfect life.  I was shocked because the person before me was virtually unrecognizable to the person described consistently by her “friend”, Jen.  All of Tracy’s positive attributes had been glaringly ignored in Jen’s description.  So, it turns out that the one area of Tracy’s life in which she had difficulty was romantic relationships.  Hey, don’t we all?

There is a Spanish proverb that says, “Whoever gossips to you will gossip about you.”  So, it was a wake-up call to see how Jen treated Tracy.  If she was maligning the reputation of a best friend since childhood, the prospects for how I would eventually be treated were not good. 

It also occurred to me that if Tracy ever hit a snag in any other area of her life, Jen was more likely to be happy about it than comforting and supportive.  Someone who gossips is one who finds the human imperfections in another (or makes them up altogether), puts them down about it (instead of offering help and support) and then invites others to do the same.  Who needs a friend like that? 

Over time, it became clear to me that Jen was a jealous person who protected her own ego by focusing only on the negative aspects of others.  I was careful to keep my distance from Jen from then on and was not surprised one bit when I, too, became the object of her gossip.  The relationship was no great loss.  By then, I felt as if the “Jen” chapter in my life had already closed.   

Gossip is talking about another behind their back, motivated by a desire to tear that person down.  Gossip is not meant to actually resolve anything, except provide a temporary feeling of superiority in the person perpetuating it.  And so, it can continue endlessly.  Gossip in a work environment can take an ordinary situation and escalate it very quickly into a colossal drama – but only in an anxious environment with enough willing participants in the process.  Even in such an environment, we can make sure that gossip stops as soon as it reaches us and goes no further.  Here are four things ways in which we can stop gossip, in any environment:

1.  Talk to the Hand.  Your colleague Helen has been complaining to you a lot lately about Carmine.  A little venting and brainstorming about a difficult issue with a coworker to gain perspective and advice is acceptable and your advice to Helen is to have her speak to Carmine directly.  Despite this advice, Helen continues to come into your office to complain. You’ve noticed Helen is complaining to others about Carmine as well and has yet to deal with Carmine directly.

You could passively allow Helen to continue complaining and you could even join in with her, escalating the gossip about Carmine throughout the office.  Or, you can put yourself in Carmine’s place and wonder what it would feel like to be gossiped about by a growing number of colleagues – none of whom have talked to you directly.  You realize that this would feel like everyone who participated in Helen’s complaining has stabbed you in the back – because they have.

The next time Helen walks through your office door, you can raise your right hand, palm out, and say the following, “Helen, I understand you are frustrated.  Unless and until you speak directly to Carmine about this, I will not listen to you complain anymore.” 

Helen could always move on to a more willing ear who will participate in her gossip about Carmine.  You, however, have made it clear that your office is the place where gossip goes to die. Your behavior shows that you can be trusted and you are not the type to stab others in the back.

2.  Unless You’re the Post Office, Stop Delivering Messages.  Ben would often get angry at his son, Tim.  Instead of working out his anger with Tim, however, he would vent to his wife, Elaine. Elaine would regularly relay all of her husband’s angry feelings to Tim.  Ben never specifically asked her to do this, yet, Elaine feels it is the only way to appease her husband.

Ben is being a gossip.  He is afraid of conflict – and may even be afraid of his own son.  Elaine is afraid of Ben’s anger, so she allows herself to be manipulated into delivering Ben’s messages for him.  Everybody loses in this situation.  Ben hides behind Elaine by having her deliver his messages for him and Elaine hides behind Ben by claiming the messages aren’t hers.  Tim gets attacked with no direct avenue with which to respond.  The relationship among all of these three people is at high risk for destruction.

If you  ever find yourself saying, ‘Mr. X wanted me to tell you that….’ stop right there.  Go right back to Mr. X and say, “Deliver your own messages. I’m not the post office.”  If you ever find yourself saying, ‘I really think that Ms. Y feels that you…’ stop right there.  If Ms. Y wants to let someone know how she feels, she can deliver her own messages all by herself.  This approach extricates you from those situations which serve as a breeding ground for gossip. 

3. Consider the Source.  Kevin turns in a negative review of his assistant.  He describes his assistant as sloppy and prone to errors.  Kevin states he doesn’t feel his assistant is able to work unsupervised.

In the absence of any further information, it can be easy to assume Kevin’s opinion as your own.  You may even unconsciously begin to act on that characterization by closely supervising any work you give the assistant and actively looking for errors and sloppiness in the assistant’s work.  Or, you could stop to consider the source. 

It turns out that Kevin’s review of many of his previous assistants over the years read very much the same way.  Kevin is hypercritical, regularly comments how you “just can’t find good people anymore” and seems to only notice the negative in any situation.  You realize Kevin is the common denominator in all of these poor reviews. 

While Kevin can continue to express his personal opinion, you no longer take his opinion into consideration when making decisions about his assistant’s future with the company.  That approach stops any gossip that has been subtly making its way through the office regarding Kevin’s assistant.

4.  Don’t Dish with the Drama Queen.  Kristen is a charismatic, social and funny person, who shares all of the latest news in the neighborhood.  Since a new neighbor has moved in, Kristen lets everyone know that the new neighbor’s husband is leaving the house at odd times.  Kristen wonders aloud if this means he is having an affair. 

Kristen talks about this to the rest of the neighborhood in such an entertaining way that others are distracted from realizing that Kristen has absolutely no concrete evidence about any affair.  Also, no one is considering what it might be like to move into a new neighborhood, hoping for a new group of supportive friends, only to be greeted by a group of people who are characterizing her husband as a cheat.  Who needs neighbors like that?

Gossip does not always appear malicious on its face.  However, participating in it, even by laughing along with a fabricated story, is still hurtful to another.  Also, remember that “if someone can do it with you, they can do it to you”.  If Kristen is able to gossip with you, she will also gossip about you sooner or later.  Gossip ultimately is not about the target, but only about the perpetrator.

Excuse yourself when Kristen begins to tell yet another entertaining story about a neighbor.  Doing so will broadcast to others that you can be a trusted neighbor and friend.  This will eventually draw like-minded neighbors together.  Now, those are the kind of neighbors I want!

We cannot eliminate all gossip from our midst, however, we can employ a few techniques to make sure that it stops as soon as it reaches us.  Our response to gossip is also a good example to others on how to handle this harmful behavior, serving as a splash of water on the wildfire that gossip can become in an anxious environment.

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