Tracy Peterson Turner

Article Summary:

How to recognize and stop office gossip.

Stopping Office Gossip

Where’s the line between telling others something interesting about someone else … and gossip? We often start conversations by telling an interesting tidbit or piece of information about another person. When we do, those conversations quickly degrade into gossip. When is conversation one of concern for another, and when does it cross the line into gossip? Consider this conversation:

Ted: Bob, did you hear about Tim? He got a great promotion.
Bob: Really? What for?
Ted: Apparently he did a job for the boss and the boss liked it; so Tim got the promotion. I think they’re friends, and that probably helped.
Gossip? Or sharing good news about a coworker? Gossip. Do you know where Ted crossed the line between sharing Tim’s good news and gossiping? As soon as Ted put in his own speculation about the reason Tim got the promotion. Seems fairly clear cut. What about this next scenario:
Millie: Margaret, I just want to let you know that Sally isn’t feeling well today; so if you have to take her any projects be patient with her.
Margaret: What’s wrong? Is she sick?
Millie: Well, you know she went to the doctor the other day. Apparently, the doctor gave her some bad news. She’s been feeling under the weather; I think the doctor confirmed what she suspected.
Margaret: What did she suspect? Is it serious?
Millie: I think so. I don’t want to say, but …
Margaret: What? You can tell me; I want to be able to help her if I can.
Millie: Well, I know she had her mammogram last week. I wouldn’t be surprised it something showed up on that. Poor Sally. Margaret: Oh my gosh, you mean cancer?
Millie: I don’t know, but…
… and the conversation goes on, with Sally getting sicker by the minute. And poor Sally doesn’t have a clue she’s become the target of someone else’s gossip.

Learning to Tell the Difference
To determine whether a conversation is degrading into gossip, we need to decide upon the motives of the participants (us and them) for sharing the information. Is our motive to attract attention and to feel the center of it all for a moment or two? Is our motive to promote the best interest of the subject of the conversation … or to promote our own self-interests? If our purpose is to promote ourselves, to get a bit of attention, to feel center-stage for a moment or two, then we are gossiping rather than having a conversation. And isn’t that exactly what Millie is doing in this case? Are her interests really to help Sally? No. Millie is merely using Sally-and what she speculates about Sally’s situation-as leverage to gain attention for herself. It is a power play.

Why should we be concerned whether we slip into gossip on occasion?
Isn’t it okay – every now and then – to talk about other people? In a word, NO! When we participate in gossip, we run the risk of damaging our credibility. And our credibility is the one thing in business and personal relationships we should strive to protect at all times. Our credibility determines how much others are willing to trust us: with information, assignments, responsibilities. If we think that a little idle chitchat won’t hurt, think again. Consider for a moment: do you know people at your job you’d never trust with a confidence? Why is that? What did they do that damaged their credibility and trustworthiness in your eyes? Was it gossip, perhaps?

How, then, can we test our conversations to ensure that we are not participating in gossip?
By asking ourselves our true motivation for participating in conversations about other people … and by being honest with our answers. When we honestly assess our motives, we’ll discover that most of the time when we’re talking about someone who isn’t present-we are gossiping.

How can we protect against participating in gossip?
A sure-fire way to stop gossip in its tracks is to guard our tongues before speaking to anyone about anyone else. Ask, "What is my motive for telling what I’m about to tell?" If it’s to get attention or to make ourselves more popular or important, then our motives are wrong and we should refrain from speaking.

What about when others start gossiping to you?
Simply ask them why they are telling you whatever it is they are telling. If they say they just wanted you to know so you’d understand why Sally is a little down these days, politely say "I’ll talk with Sally right now and let her know you told me about her situation. Perhaps she needs some comfort." You’ll know right away if the person who told you about Sally’s situation is uncomfortable with that. And then you’ll be able to surmise the real motive behind why they wanted to talk about Sally.

Stopping Gossip in its Tracks
When you find yourself in a situation where you suspect gossip is about to take place, try some of these lines to extricate yourself:

  • I’m uncomfortable talking about Tim when he is not present to tell his side of the story. Lets hold this conversation until he can be with us.
  • Is this something Sally specifically asked you to tell me? If so, I’ll be sure to let her know you filled me in.
  • When I hear you talk about other people and their situations, I wonder whether you talk about me to others.
  • Can we wait to talk about this until (Tim/Sally) can be with us? Thanks.
  • Is what you are about to tell me something you would say if (Tim/Sally) were here?
You may not be too popular with the people who like to gossip when you start using these lines with them. But your main concern should be protecting your credibility-and your privacy. You will quickly learn to whom you can safely tell your secrets and from whom you should steer clear.

Dr. Tracy Peterson Turner is an expert in both written and verbal communication. She knows – and clearly communicates – the traps most professionals fall in to when attempting to communicate with those in their work environments. She provides her clients with clear, specific, and proven strategies to avoid those traps while projecting a credible and professional image. Dr. Turner has owned and successfully operated her business, Managerial Impact, in order to bring her expertise to those corporations who want their managers to communicate more effectively and to individuals who want to get their messages heard. She is the author of 5 Critical Communication Vehicles, an informative and readable book that helps managers communicate more effectively every day.

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