Harriet Lerner has noted that the volume of gossip in an organization or community is the best raw measurement of the level of anxiety in that group. Anxiety is corrosive to the health of any organization.
I believe that staff and volunteer leaders in an organization have two responsibilities when it comes to gossip and anxiety. First, we must find ways to refuse delivery when gossip is brought to our doorstep. Second we must stop the transmission of anxiety through our offices and our roles and into the larger organization.
A church office, for example, is often regarded as "Gossip Central" in a congregation. Those members with high needs to know will frequent the offices and ask all sorts of probing questions. Or they will bring the latest juicy tidbit, hoping for ratification of their behavior and a ready platform for spreading the news. As leaders in such a system, what are some of the helpful and hopeful ways to respond?
There is the obvious policy level of response. A leader can announce publicly that gossip is not appropriate in the halls and offices of the congregation. That announcement can be put in writing in the official communications of the congregation. Leadership groups and program groups can develop ground rules that inhibit the sharing of gossip.
That's all well and good. And the folks committed to this unhealthy sort of communication pattern will ignore all such official pronouncements. The official policies will apply to all those terrible people who gossip. I, on the other hand, am one of those people who really cares. Thus, I must be exempt.
So, what can we do to deal with the community virus called gossip?
- We can simply change the subject. In particular, we might say something like, "That's all very interesting, but tell me--what's happening with you these days?" That may actually lead to a productive conversation. At the very least it will quiet those folks who have no interest in self-revelation. After all, that's why those folks gossip--to have someone other than themselves to discuss!
- We can challenge the source of the information. How did you come by such information? Is this information something you would be willing to share in court under oath and on pain of the charge of perjury? If not, let's talk about the weather.
- We can see if talk is cheap. Have you taken the effort to actually talk firsthand to the relevant party? If there is a problem or a need, are you willing to do something to make the situation better? Do you believe that sharing a concern or a complaint or a critique is actually the same as doing something? In fact, talking is talking. Only doing is actually doing.
- We can simply suggest that we don't engage in such conversation in this office. Others are welcome to have these conversations, but we would prefer they happen elsewhere.
Of course, all these responses risk the possibility of offending the speaker. Perhaps you think that's a problem. If you do, then you are likely part of the gossip network already. Gossiping is the offensive behavior. Challenging it is not.
"So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!" (James 3:5). Refusing delivery on gossip is the most active and effective thing an individual can do to reduce the anxiety in a system. An organizational culture that focuses on building healthy communication patterns will go a long way toward being a more productive business or congregation.