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October 1, 2013

Gossip is usually belittled, despised, and pathologized, yet it’s actually one of the most important empathic tools you have. Clearly, this is not the accepted view of gossip, which is usually portrayed as toxic, deceitful, and immature.

What I discovered in anthropology, sociology, and social psychology is that gossip is a universal practice that is irreplaceably vital to human communication and relationships. It's an essential part of social life, intimacy, and emotional health. Studies have shown that gossip is undertaken by people of all ages and both genders.

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Gossip is not — as I thought erroneously — a sign of cowardice or dishonesty; gossip is the tool you use to form bonds and convey (and become skilled in) the unwritten social and emotional rules of each social situation you encounter. Gossip is a vital social skill, because it gives you a quick and easy way to learn the lay of the land, socially speaking.

If someone pulls you aside and warns you that a mutual friend is in a really bad mood because his car just got sideswiped, you’ve just been saved from making a social faux pas by asking him for that $40 he owes you. Gossip, which we can also call informal communication, can give you social information you can’t get any other way.

It's an irreplaceable communication and connection tool that helps you learn the informal rules of a social group. It also helps you become aware of threats to your security and your relationships, and gossip can help you take the actions that your jealousy and envy require.

Gossip contains an incredible amount of essential social information.

When you can create an ethical practice for your gossip, you can bring the life-changing gifts of your jealousy and envy out of the shadows. This practice will also help you become more able to empathize with and provide support to the currently unaware gossipers in your life.

Gossip is as natural to us as breathing.

Anthropologists see gossip in humans as a primal tool of socialization, almost like the preening and grooming primates use to form bonds. So gossip is primal, and it’s necessary. But that’s no reason to allow it to be unconscious, derisive, or dehumanizing.

If you can understand the tension relieving, information-gathering, and socialization opportunities that gossip provides, you can turn gossip into a tool that will support your ethics and your relationships. You can turn gossip into an ethical empathic practice.

Here are some guidelines for creating an Ethical Empathic Gossip session with a supportive friend or coworker:

1. Identify a person you gossip about consistently and with whom your relationship has stalled.

2. Open the gossip session by acknowledging your trouble in the situation.

3. Ask your friend for help in dealing with your gossip target and to listen with the goal of providing opinions, ideas, techniques, and skills that will help you re-enter the relationship or situation in a different way.

4. Go for it — just gossip — but be aware of any shadow issues that come forward. Remember that gossip targets nearly always hold some of your shadow!

5. When your friend gives you feedback, pay attention.

6. Close your gossip session with thanks, and then go back to the original relationship or situation with your new skills and insights. Or let it go if it’s too damaged to survive. But don’t go back in the same old way; that’s what led to the need for gossip in the first place.

When your gossip is conscious and ethical, you’ll increase your social skills and your empathy, and you’ll become more able to create honest, healthy relationships.

What’s amazing to me in this practice is that when gossip is made conscious, you can clearly see what a stupendous information-gathering tool it is. When you’re able to gossip ethically in this safe, firmly bounded empathic practice, you may be amazed to learn how much intricate social information you’ve gathered about your gossip targets. This practice will connect you to the deep and emotionally rich undercurrents that flow through your informal gossip networks.

This practice will also remind you that you can ask for and receive help in dealing with difficult emotions, difficult situations, and difficult people. When you’ve hit a wall, remember to reach out for the assistance of others instead of isolating yourself. None of us knows how to deal with all emotions, all situations, or all relationships, because we simply weren’t taught how.

For goodness’ sake, most of us weren’t even taught how to name our own emotions! We’re all working without a guidebook here, and we can always use some empathic assistance.

Excerpted from The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill by Karla McLaren. Copyright © 2013 Karla McLaren. Published by Sounds True.

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Karla McLaren
Karla McLaren

Karla McLaren is a lifelong empath, pioneering educator, researcher, and award-winning author whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions, and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the author of The Language of Emotions (Sounds True, 2010), and the online course Emotional Flow (2012). Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Kripalu, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology, and she is currently developing new forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for autistics and other neurologically diverse people. She lives in Sonoma County, California. For more information, visit