How To Have Ethical Gossip (And Why It's Essential To A Healthy Workplace)

Social science researcher By Karla McLaren, M.Ed.
Social science researcher
Karla McLaren, M.Ed., is an award-winning author, social science researcher, and empathy pioneer.
Women Chatting at Work
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Gossip has a terrible reputation. In many listicles (articles made of lists) on how to run a successful business, shutting down workplace gossip is highlighted in bold, italicized, and followed by three or four exclamation points.

Frustratingly, this idea could not be more wrong. Gossip is absolutely necessary in every social group, and the quality and quantity of each group's gossip can tell you everything about the social and emotional health of that group. If the gossip is toxic, it's a commentary on the toxicity of the social structure and the failure of the group's emotional skills, relationship skills, repair stations, and more—it's not the fault of gossip!

Gossip can tell you deep truths about a social structure, and shutting down gossip is not only an absurd and emotionally ignorant idea, it's impossible.

However, you can help to make gossip ethical and empathetic so that this required form of communication will nourish and support people rather than drain and divide them.

How to practice ethical empathetic gossip (EEG).

First, this gossip practice should be optional for everyone. Most people have been shamed about gossiping or hurt by unethical gossip, so it's OK if people don't feel able to access this process. Everyone needs to have the freedom to abstain.

It's also important for people to feel safe and to choose people they trust as their partners; this cannot be an enforced practice. What you're looking for in an EEG partner is someone you trust and admire who can keep your confidences and who you think may have new and useful information for you.

Take care if you're in a hierarchical workplace, and be mindful about people who are in nondominant or marginalized groups; the ability to speak freely and tell the truth isn't equally shared in hierarchical or emotionally unregulated social structures.

In fact, the freedom to speak the truth can be an unconscious form of privilege for insiders and people in the dominant majority. This gossip practice, which can be so freeing for equals who trust each other, could be dangerously exposing when equality and trust are not present in your workplace. Be aware of the power of gossip and EEG, and choose your partners with care.

In EEG, you will gossip while your listener pays attention, engages with you, asks questions, and learns the details of the entire situation. Each EEG session takes between 13 and 15 minutes because there's usually a lot of back-and-forth conversation as your listener gathers information about the situation. If you have enough time in one sitting, you can take turns with your partner. If you don't have time for both of you to trade places, make sure that you schedule another time when you can be the listener and offer 13 to 15 minutes of reciprocal support for your EEG partner.

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Here are the guidelines for EEG with a supportive partner:

  1. Identify a person (or people) you gossip about consistently and with whom your relationship has stalled.
  2. Open the gossip session by acknowledging your trouble in the relationship.
  3. Ask your partner for help in dealing with your troubled relationship. Ask for opinions, ideas, techniques, and skills that will help you reenter the relationship in a different way.
  4. Go for it—just gossip.
  5. Your partner should feel free to ask for clarification and back story if needed.
  6. When your partner understands enough and gives you feedback, pay attention. Take notes if you need to.
  7. Close your EEG session with thanks, and then go back to the damaged relationship with your new skills and insights—or modify the relationship if it's too damaged to survive as is. Don't go back in the same old way—because that's what led to the need for gossip in the first place.

Tips for the EEG listener.

Your job is to find out as much as you can about the situation because you need to see the big picture. Let your gossiper talk and try not to give any advice until you've heard the entire story. A very good question to ask before you give advice is "What have you tried?" You can save a lot of time and refine your input if you don't just start throwing out ideas based on what you would have done (this isn't about you). Let your partner talk, and let the genius of their jealousy and envy paint you a picture of the entire situation.

Here are some emotionally respectful questions that can help your partner access the far-reaching wisdom of jealousy and envy:

  • What feels like a betrayal?
  • What needs to be made right?
  • What would be fair for everyone?
  • How could everyone feel heard and respected?
  • What would be the best outcome for everyone?

Remember that jealousy and envy, when they're allowed to bring their gifts and skills forward, are not focused on me, me, me. The particular genius of these two emotions is focused on fairness, equity, relatedness, and loyalty in relationships and social structures.

When people fall into toxic gossip, they're nearly always reacting to the loss of these things and to inequality in their important relationships. Asking about the needs of everyone in the situation leans into jealousy and envy's skill set; both emotions keep their eye on balance and fairness in the social structure as a whole.

What's amazing in this practice is that when gossip is made conscious, you can clearly see what a stupendous information-gathering tool it is. When people are given the freedom to share all of the intricate social information their jealousy and envy have gathered, they can access the deep, socially aware, and emotionally rich undercurrents that exist in gossip and in gossip networks.

Gossip helps us connect with others, understand human behavior, recognize or change our social position, and support (or modify) rules and set them for others. Gossip also relieves tension—because it allows us to share the private information we've learned about others but are not allowed to mention in public. Gossip is a very powerful thing!

Adapted from an excerpt from The Power of Emotions at Work: Accessing the Vital Intelligence in Your Workplace by Karla McLaren, M.Ed. Copyright © 2021 Karla McLaren. Published by Sounds True in August 2021.

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