Who gossips to you will gossip of you.
Last week I said words are powerful because they can never be taken back. And to make matters worse, their damage can never be totally undone.
An old Jewish teaching talks about that. The teaching compares cruel words to murder. The penitent thief can return the money he has stolen. But the penitent murderer, no matter how sincerely he repents, cannot restore the victim to life. And in a similar sense, a person who damages another’s reputation through malicious gossip can never totally undo the damage.
That was illustrated by a folktale set in the 19th century of Eastern Europe. A man went about the community slandering the rabbi. But one day, feeling remorseful, the man begged the rabbi for forgiveness. He offered to do any kind of penance to make amends for the damage he had caused.
The rabbi told him to take a feather pillow from his home, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the wind. The man did as he was instructed. He then returned to the rabbi and asked, “Am I now forgiven?”
“Almost,” replied the rabbi. “You first have to perform one last task. Go and gather all the feathers.”
The man protested, “But that’s impossible because the wind has already scattered them.”
“Precisely,” said the rabbi. He knew that once the words of gossip are spoken, they shape our reputation in the world. They’re almost impossible to retract, and they’re very difficult to change.
That’s why your parents and teachers may have told you, “Don’t say anything about a person unless it’s good.” But one man said, “Wait until you hear this. Is it ever good!”
Your parents and teachers knew that most gossip was negative in character. It tends to pull people down rather than build them up.
So why do people do it? It gives them a rush. They get a “high” from being “in the know” or being privy to information that others don’t have. They get a temporary sense of power. And they get to feel “superior” to someone else, at least for a little while.
If you’re trying to build relationships at home or teams at work, be careful of gossip. It’s so easy to fall into its trap.
Of course, you may think you’re free of the gossip problem. You don’t listen to it, and you don’t pass it along. Good for you.
In reality, very few people actually see themselves as gossips, but lots of people are. I suppose that’s why one person said, “Gossip will never be repeated through these lips; so listen carefully.”
If you want to stop yourself from falling into the gossip trap, I suggest the following steps. First, SEE YOUR WORDS FOR WHAT THEY ARE. You may think you’re simply passing along “information” and your “information” isn’t gossip. To make sure that’s the case, ask yourself two questions.
Do your words reveal something negative about someone else? And would the subject of your information like you to keep it to yourself? If you answered “yes” to one or both of those questions, your “information” is probably gossip.
Second, REMEMBER THE PRICE YOU PAY. Gossip is not free. Whenever you gossip about someone who is not present, you lose the trust of those who are. They know if you’ll talk about others, you’ll talk about them in disparaging ways.
Perhaps you’ve noticed this phenomenon. You’ve gone to a party, and there wasn’t much to talk about–until one or two couples left. Then the conversation picked up and the gossip flowed freely. And have you ever wondered what people said about you when you were gone? Of course. Gossip always destroys trust.
Third, PRACTICE THOUGHTFUL SILENCE. Think before you speak. You can’t take your words back, and you can’t totally undo their damage. So think. Do your words build up or tear down? If your words tear down, you might be better off saying nothing. Remember, “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”
You may be guilty of putting your tongue to work before your brain is fully engaged. It’s a dangerous way to live. I saw a sign that said, “To say the right thing at the right time, keep still most of the time.” That may be an exaggeration, but you get the point. If your information isn’t helpful to all concerned, you may need to keep still.
Finally, CONFESS IT IF YOU DID IT. It may be good for you and your relationships on and off the job. You relieve the stress and rebuild the trust.
I think of one teacher who asked his adult students to think of things from their past that made them feel ashamed or regretful. He suggested that they find ways to apologize–or right the wrongs–if at all possible.
The next week in class one of his students, Jimmy Calkins, reported that he had done that. Twenty years before back in high school, he and two friends had climbed the water tower in a small Iowa town. In bright read letters, they wrote on the tower, “Sheriff Brown is a S.O.B.!”
The sheriff apprehended the boys the next day. The other boys confessed, but Jimmy lied. He denied any involvement and escaped punishment.
Jimmy said he didn’t know if Sheriff Brown was alive or not. But he looked up the number and called. Sheriff Brown answered, and he heard, “This is Jimmy Calkins. And I want you to know that I did it.”
“I knew it,” Brown yelled back. They had a good laugh as they conversed.
The real lesson came in Brown’s closing words. He said, “Jimmy, I always felt badly for you because your buddies got it off their chest, and I know you were carrying it around all these years. I want to thank you for calling me–for your sake.”
Action: Before you speak about someone else, ask yourself a question. Will your comments build up or tear down the other person? And will your comments help or hurt the situation?
If your comments tear down and hurt, they fall in the realm of gossip. If your comments build up and help, they’re part of the problem-solving process.