At work there is so much gossip. I hate it, but I can’t stop Work & careers

The question I can’t seem to stop gossiping and complaining about the people around me. This primarily happens at work and I am not the only person who does it; it is a toxic environment where bitching is the norm, so it is hard to resist. Every day I give myself a little talk about how I am not going to say a bad word about someone and every day I get sucked into gossip or end up saying something mean. It is the trait I deplore the most in myself and I am starting to believe that deep down I am a horrible person who doesn’t deserve any friends. I used to pride myself on my ability to be honest, opinionated and outspoken, but the balance has tipped into bitterness, whining and impulsive gossiping. The worst part is, when I bitch about someone, I deep down don’t feel negatively about them and am baffled as to why I say such horrible things.

I have worked hard on myself in the last few years (becoming sober, going to therapy) and I am ashamed that I have not evolved into a better person. I don’t want to be small-minded by getting a thrill out of bringing others down. I really respect and admire people who are more positive, open minded and can control their thoughts and emotions around others – how do I become that person and say goodbye once and for all to this poisonous part of myself?

Philippa’s answer You’ve recognized and articulated your problem; you are well on the way to changing tack. I’d like you to look up Portia Nelson’s famous poem: An Autobiography in Five Chapters. It’s about walking down a road and falling down a hole. She falls in, it’s not her fault. Then she sees the hole, she knows she’s going to fall in, it’s still not her fault, after which she sees the hole, she falls in, it’s her fault. She sees the hole, she walks around it. Then she walks down another street entirely. Her metaphor means that you need to cut yourself some slack when you are learning a new habit, it takes time to change behavior.

It is difficult to stop gossiping, especially if you feel insecure in your work environment. It is an expedient way to bond with someone when you have a third party that you both agree is in some way bad. As the socialite and wit Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said: “If you’ve got nothing nice to say… come and sit by me.”

Gossip can work as a glue, it flows between people who feel mutually friendly and it’s a sign that you trust them. There are downsides. If you hear negative gossip about someone, it can change the way you think about them, which can be unfair and harsh. Neither is it great when it seems it’s become your turn to be the subject of the gossip. But gossip can relieve feelings of tension or animosity you may have towards people as it can release pressure you may have felt but, of course, if you find a tactful way of more direct communication that may be better for everyone.

In any group, there are stages of how the group develops. In 1965, psychologist Bill Tuckman observed these were: forming, norming, storming then performing. It sounds like at work you are at the “norming” stage, and the norm is backstabbing and gossip! And as a group you have all got stuck there.

I wonder if you can start to change the culture of your workplace? The storm this can cause may not be terrible. This will help: Get into the habit of “I statements”. So instead of “he is irritating” switch to noticing “I feel irritated”, thus taking responsibility for your reactions and realizing that just because someone irritates you it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them. This habit will help you take responsibility for your response rather than blaming the other. You can also wonder what it is about them that might be reminding you about a trait you have that you wish you didn’t. You can experiment with more direct communication. To do this, again stick to “I statements”. So rather than, say, “You are always late” try, “I get anxious unless you do this by then.” The general rule being, say how something makes you feel, and then say what behavior you would like instead. It might not be as fun as moaning to your best office friend, but it could be more useful.

You are very hard on yourself for gossiping. You are doing to yourself what you do to others. If you were more understanding with yourself, that is likely to contribute to you showing similar generosity towards your colleagues. You can already articulate your problem and you are at the stage of catching yourself after you’ve done it, so you are on the right track. Next stage is instead of beating yourself up about it, congratulate yourself – “Ah ha! That’s what I don’t want to do any more!” Defer judging altogether and be curious about people, and yourself, instead. Don’t judge, it’s not necessary to damn anyone nor praise them, you can just be interested in them.

Notice your progress, notice the temptations and high-five yourself when you don’t act on them.

And, if we are ever at the same party, come and sit next to me.

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