Gossip. Backbiting. Complaining.
Years ago, when a friend and I would meet for lunch, somehow, it invariably turned into a meal of complaints or a conversation orbiting around the critique of others. I’d walk away from the luncheon splattered with the emotional mud of gossip, feeling disappointed and reticent to get together in the future. It could be months before we got together again, partly because of the heavy feeling in my heart.
Estimated reading time: 4 minutesHowever, I ached for relationships that challenged me to be my best self and held me accountable to be kind and loving. To create trustworthy relationships that were strong enough to handle complete transparency, I committed to putting honesty and kindness first, regardless of the fear of my friend’s reaction. So, I scheduled a lunch with her. After catching up about our kids, I said I needed to talk to her about something that was really hard for me. This intro got her attention—and what happened next really surprised me!
More on that in a moment!
What Is Gossip and What Makes Gossip So Enticing?
Gossiping or incessant complaining are unhealthy habits but so easy to indulge in—like that delicious peanut butter satin pie topped with whipped cream that you enjoy but makes your stomach queasy afterward. (Yum!)
You might be surprised that social scientists believe that gossip is an evolutionary relic that we used to protect one another. How do we stop gossiping when our brains are wired to keep listening or set a boundary for others who gossip? And what is the best way to be a good friend when you find yourself listening to unkind words? Or maybe you’re the one gossiping, and it feels out of sync with who you really are, and you want to stop. Standing up to gossip can be unnerving; it was for me the first time.
One of the reasons we often participate in gossip is the enticement of belonging, which is a basic need. Gossiping, whether it’s workplace gossip or gabbing at happy hour, gives us a sense of power and the evolutionary upper hand; we feel safer knowing we won’t be excluded or caught off guard by someone untrustworthy. However, if you check in with yourself, you may also find that gossiping fulfills an artificial way to feel closer to people.
Back to my story. After pointing out our tendency toward negativity and gossip, I told my friend that I didn’t feel good about this pattern and how it often left me with a bad taste after our time together. I let her know that our friendship was too important to me to risk tainting it with bad habits that would corrode it. I asked her if perhaps she felt the same way. Although she was reticent to disclose her feelings initially, it turned out she did feel similarly! We agreed to hold each other accountable to be kind and avoid talking unkindly about anyone. And the agreement not only stuck, but it also transformed the quality of our relationship.
I’ve been drawing boundaries around gossip ever since, and it’s allowed me to develop authentic connections and closeness in my relationships. You can do this, too!
Related reading: “How to Change Habits and Create a Life You Love!”
Steps to Replace Gossip with Genuine Connection with Yourself and OthersSetting healthy boundaries for yourself and others takes courage and practice, yet it’s well worth the effort and grit. If you’d like to begin this journey, here are some simple steps to get started.
STEP 1: Observe yourself and your interactions.
The first step is to observe your daily conversations and how you interact. Do your relationships energize or deplete you? Do the social interchanges support your values and best self, or do they undermine true connection? Determine where a conversation or relationship starts to feel off. Does it happen when talking about others, when you’re self-deprecating, or when discussing depressing world events?
When you notice a thorn in your heart or are feeling a little off, pay attention. Perhaps, you need to regulate big feelings so you can take action appropriately. Maybe a heart-to-heart conversation with your spouse or a good friend is overdue. Healthy and loving relationships and friendships are there to uplift, support, and nurture you with reciprocity.
STEP 2: Identify what relationships and circumstances make you vulnerable to gossip.
After observing yourself for a couple of weeks, pinpoint what you don’t like and the people who goad you to either be an active or passive participant in gossip. Consciously decide what you want instead and define exactly what that might look like.
For example, with my friend, I pinpointed our negative bent toward complaining and criticizing others. At the time, she was the primary person in my life stirring with the gossip spoon, so that’s where I started.
STEP 3: Choose your starting point.
After you’ve figured out the trouble spot, decide where you want to begin. Don’t try to change everything at once because it’s likely you won’t be successful; it’s far more effective to start small. Since I identified that gossiping with my friend only happened when it was just the two of us face-to-face, I chose to open a discussion with her in the same manner.
STEP 4: Design your success strategy.
Just like a basketball or football coach sketching out strategies for their players, it’s helpful for you to do the same. Perhaps, you begin by pruning your own behavior from tendencies of encouraging gossip in conversations at work. Or, if you decide to start with a particular relationship like me, set a time and place to create safety and needed privacy for a meaningful conversation. Plan out what you’re going to say and what to do if they react.
STEP 5: Take ACTION!
It could be easy to talk yourself out of setting a boundary for gossip or unhealthy behavior—don’t!
Give yourself ample time to think through your strategy and rehearse as needed, but don’t allow apprehension or fear to keep you from taking a step in the right direction, no matter how small your progress is. Follow through. Regardless of how the conversation goes, it will launch a whole new level of self-respect and confidence.
What’s most important is that you listen to your own heart. Pay attention to what feels right to you and act on it.
It may be uncomfortable to set a boundary when it means that the other person could react negatively, but it will be worth it. (And they may surprise you and feel relief.)
The first time we attempt a new behavior, it's clumsy, and we often make mistakes when learning, so go easy on yourself. Taking action will require more of you—stretching into the uncomfortable is the essence of growth. Don't let a comfort zone keep you in the habit of gossiping or complaining. Be bold. Choose the higher road.
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