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Gossip and Conflict

Gossip is undoubtedly a universal activity and one that has been historically considered an aid to social bonding. It’s often through gossip that we learn about each other, possibly leading to the realization that we share common backgrounds, values, beliefs and interests that may provide a sense of belonging and friendship.

Gossip in organizations may also inform employees what sort of behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable, and learning news from the office ‘grapevine’ often avoids being blindsided. That is, gossip may help prepare staff to constructively engage in discussions regarding upcoming announcements that have an impact on them.

Having considered several positive outcomes of gossip, it is necessary to also consider how this practice is frequently destructive and leads to conflict. That is, gossip is commonly an exaggeration or fabrication about a person and situation. Those who engage in gossip might, for instance, paint a picture of others that taints their personal and professional lives. It can tarnish careers, personal relationships and reputations. It can embarrass, cause shame and demean people who have no way of defending themselves.

The motivation of those who initiate gossip of this nature is not always evident. Is it to be part of the group? Is it to feel better by putting others down? Is it due to mean-spiritedness? Is it due to jealousy? Only the gossiper knows the reason – and not always consciously. However, even when we participate in the discussion that others initiate, we are complicit and essentially, condone the ‘bad-mouthing’. When conflict emerges, as a consequence, we can be seen as part of the problem.

If you tend to be a gossiper, or regularly engage in gossip that undermines others (whether or not you initiate it), please consider the following questions. It helps to start by bringing to mind a situation in which you initiated a story about a co-worker (or boss, or friend, or family member), or you were told about a situation and participated in a discussion about it.

  • What is the story?
  • What role did you play? ___ Initiator ____ Participator (check which)
  • What part (parts) of the story do you know for sure is (are) absolutely true? What part (parts) do you know is (are) absolutely not true, as far as you are aware?
  • What part or parts are you unsure about its truth?
  • If you shared the story in the first place (initiator), what motivated you to do so?
  • What purpose did you achieve by sharing the gossip?
  • If you participated in an ongoing discussion about the story (by asking questions and discussing the situation in detail – and not negating it or shutting it down), what motivated you to do so?
  • As the person hearing the gossip, what did you want to say that you didn’t? What stopped you from saying that?
  • What sorts of conflicts are you aware of that unfolded as a result of initiating the story or participating in it?
  • In the end, what benefits were gained from the gossip? What are you specifically realizing is the downside of gossip that you hadn’t before?
  • What else occurs to you as you consider these questions?
  • What insights do you have?

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