Confronting Gossip

Confronting Gossip

Published by Michelle Haupt on

By Joan Garbo

In my not-so-humble opinion, we have a love/hate relationship with gossip. We love gossip – as long as it’s not about us. There are TV shows, blogs, and newspaper columns that make money from gossip. Facebook posts are rife with it. So if you’re reading or watching any of these, you are tacitly condoning gossip – that it’s OK to gossip, it’s interesting, and entertaining. But is it really?

Confronting Gossip

To answer that question, we have to define what gossip is. In the broadest sense, gossip is any conversation two or more people are having about another person who is not present. So stories about TV/movie stars and other societal celebs’ lives may not necessarily be harmful.

But reporting opinions as facts without checking if the information is true, or revealing intimate bits of information without the person’s permission, can be very harmful. It’s interesting to note that when a paper publishes a story that is proven to be false, the paper puts the retraction in small print at the end of the paper, while the original story was practically headline news!

There is a parable about a man who goes to the village rabbi to confess that he had gossiped about someone else in the village and regretted doing that as the information was proven to be false. He asked the rabbi what he could do to correct his mistake. The rabbi instructed him to go home and take a feather pillow to the top of the highest hill in the area and rip it open to allow the feathers to be blown about in the wind. When he had done this, he told the man to come back and report to the rabbi for further instructions. The man did as he was told and when he returned, the rabbi told him to find all the feathers and refill the pillow.

The point is that it is almost impossible to know who has heard, believed, and then passed on the gossip to others who believed it and passed it on to others, etc. The damage can be irreparable.

For practical purposes, I define gossip in practices as a complaint that someone has about someone or something that s/he takes to someone who can do nothing about it!

To illustrate this, let’s say Susie has a problem with Jane, but she goes to Mary and says, “Did you hear what Jane did?”

Immediately, Mary’s ears perk up and she says, “NO, what did she do?” Susie proceeds to tell Mary how mean and nasty Jane was and how she was so hurt and upset by Jane.

Before Mary passes on the juicy tidbit of gossip to someone else, she responds to Susie, “Well, if you think that’s bad, let me tell you what I heard she did last month!” And so it goes. If you have ever played the game operator – where someone whispers a short message to someone who passes it on to someone else who repeats it to someone else, etc. – you know that by the time the last person says what they heard, the message is totally different than what was originally said.

When I’ve asked team members why they don’t just go to Jane and discuss the issue with her, the answers are: I hate confrontation, I don’t want to hurt her feelings, it’ll only lead to a fight, she always gets so defensive, nothing will change, etc.

The ultimate problem is, the original complaint is not handled – the source of the upset is still in place! And even worse, other people who were not involved with the incident now have formed a negative opinion about the ‘offender’ whose side of the story they have not heard.

If you agree that gossip is unproductive and are serious about reducing (and hopefully eliminating) gossip in your workplace, then I have a few suggestions for you to follow:

  1. When you have a problem or are upset with a co-worker, don’t confront him/her with the problem; rather confront the problem WITH him/her!
  2. Speak about your experience of the problem rather than blaming the other person for your upset.
  3. Make specific requests that you both agree will resolve the issue.
  4. Acknowledge the person for his/her willingness to resolve the problem amicably.

Here is a hypothetical example of these suggestions:

Susie: “Mary, I would like to talk to you about a situation I had yesterday. Do you have a moment?”

Mary: “Sure, what’s up?”

Susie: “Yesterday when you were late coming back from lunch, I was worried and upset that something may have happened to you.”

Mary: “I had to go to the bank and there was a long line and I couldn’t help it!”

Susie: “Yes, I’m sure there was problem. My request is that if you find you’re going to be late for any reason, you just call and let someone know what your new ETA is so no one is worried.”

Mary: “Yes, I can do that.”

Susie: “Thank you…that will be a great help and I appreciate your support.”

While initially this may sound/feel awkward to you, it avoids accusations and addresses the issue rather than the person. It preserves people’s sense of dignity and promotes cooperation and collaboration, as well as trust among team members.

Like the old Alka-Seltzer commercial used to say: “Try it! You’ll like it!”

Joan Garbo can be described as one who “walks her talk.” She is a premier change agent who is dedicated to her work and her clients. Throughout the past 32 years, Joan has led more than 2,500 seminars on effective communication, public speaking skills, team building, and customer service. Her high energy level and enthusiasm inspire people to action giving them a renewed sense of purpose and the tools for motivation. Her “edutainment” seminars show people how to transform problems into opportunities, work into joy, and job seekers into stakeholders. She has facilitated hundreds of practice owners in achieving their goals and trained their employees in turning the patients into a powerful volunteer sales force. Contact Joan at or visit her website