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Responding to Gossip

Taken From:
Saanich News June 14, 2006,

Paul Beckow M.Sc. R.P.C.
Individual couple and Family Counsellor

Dear Paul

Things can get so crazy in our family. My brother calls me to complain about dad. My sister phones me and crabs about my brother. When I’m with mom and dad they tell me how frustrated they feel with my sister. What’s going on here?


Dear Diana,

What you are hearing is the result of conflicts amongst members of your family that are not being attended to. This is frequently how we are in the face of conflict. We avoid conflict.

It is my view that learning to resolve conflict is the next big breakthrough in the curriculum for being human. The world is calling on us to learn new ways.

What’s going on here you say?

Human beings have fundamentally three basic “conditioned” styles while reacting to conflict – all of them ineffective.

The first is aggressive. This implies, when faced with differences or threat, we blame or we attack. We are “right” and make the other person wrong in some way. Whether we are cool, controlled and rational, or emotional and openly upset, blaming or finding fault, is still aggressive and doesn’t work very well.

The chief feature of the aggressive style is doing harm - doing harm to another’s good feelings or to their image of themselves. The pay-off of being aggressive is we briefly get to feel strong, expressed, and right. The cost to us for being aggressive is a clear loss in our experience of affinity, aliveness, and sense of connection with the other person.

The second way of being in the face of conflict is passive. Passive implies when faced with differences or conflict we withdraw, ignore, deny, or minimize the conflict.

The chief feature of being passive is avoidance. The pay-off of being passive is the relief that comes from avoiding conflict. Yet this style has its costs too. Being passive regularly results in resentment and unfinished business with others. Further, nothing is resolved. Nothing new is learned or brought forward.

Diana, there is a third way of being when faced with conflict. I call it passive-aggressive. With the passive aggressive style we get to be right AND avoid dealing with the person we are in conflict with.

How do we do this? By talking about the complaints, judgments and differences we have with someone - to someone else.

The most common expression of passive aggression is GOSSIP. Gossip is speaking about another in a way that you wouldn’t speak about them if they were right beside you.

Your family is practicing gossip. Thoughtlessly we all do it. To gossip is so seductive.

When I talk with you about the problems and complaints I have with someone else, I seem to feel better. I get to be right AND I get all sorts of support or agreement from you. As well, you get to feel sympathetic and connected to me. We bond !

We don’t have to be responsible for our complaints; we simply agree about them. Gossip not only bonds us, it replaces real and constructive action.

The costs of gossip in family, in organizations, in our work places, is huge. Gossip is like a nasty little virus that weakens, in fact, destroys, the well being, enthusiasm, and vision of any team of people at work on a project.

What is at the basis of all this? Fear. We are afraid of hurting others feelings; we are afraid of being hurt. We haven’t learned how to communicate cleanly, without blame. We haven’t learned how to share with, and listen to, another in a way that allows for new and constructive possibilities to appear.

So, Diana, what do you do with your mother, your sister, or your bother and these conversations of gossip. What can each of us do?

You can share how these conversations make you feel.

Saying something like: “Mom, I feel uncomfortable when we talk about Jan this way. I know that you’re frustrated with her. I’ll talk a little more on this only if you promise you’ll communicate directly with her. Otherwise, I’d prefer not to discuss this further.”

Conflict is an opportunity to learn new skills of communication. When we encourage each other to take on being open and solving conflict we support one another to learn some new and powerful lessons. This way we grow together.

Paul Beckow is a certified individual, marriage, and family therapist. If you have a relationship, personal issue or concern, he can be reached by phoning the Victoria Family Institute at 721 2477 or contacted through his web site at www.paulbeckow.com

For personal or couple counselling, for more information, or to register for a course - please contact Paul Beckow at The Victoria Family Institute.

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