Understanding and Preventing Gossip

We all know the pain caused by having our private conversations spread around. How can we prevent that, and how can we avoid gossiping ourselves?

It was a typical late afternoon, and I’d already spent a long day seeing clients. Jim and Leanna (all names have been changed to protect client identities) were my last for the day, and things were not going well.

Jim sat on the couch, turned away from Leanna in frustration and refusing to look her in the eye. “Every time we fight, she runs to her mother or her friend,” he muttered. “Why can’t we ever just keep things between the two of us? It’s got to where I just don’t trust her with anything anymore.”

Jim was fed up with the lack of confidentiality and privacy he felt he was owed as Leanna’s husband, and it was causing huge problems in their marriage.

The need to be confidential

Brianna was a 16-year-old girl who struggled to open up for similar reasons. It took several months before she finally confided in me. “My mom repeats everything I say to people and twists it around,” she told me. “I’ve learned not to share anything, because my mom usually finds out and then I’m in trouble.”

Jeremy, 22, still lived at home but was filled with anger toward his family, especially his brother, because of all the drama that had happened over the years resulting from family gossip.

Do you have a similar story? Has someone betrayed you by repeating private words you shared?

Information that is shared with others in confidence means that it is meant to be kept private. To not do so means that we have broken confidence or confidentiality. In a professional setting the law requires therapists to protect client information, but what about the rest of us? Who holds us accountable?

Words can hurt me!

With each of my clients mentioned above a lot of damage had been done, some of it irreparable, all because of one small body part—the tongue!

James talks about the tongue in the Bible, when he describes it as “a fire, a world of iniquity” (James 3:6) and then goes on to say that “no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (verse 8).

We’ve all been on the receiving end of that poison, haven’t we? Conversely, haven’t we all been responsible for spreading it at times as well?

While human laws may not hold the average person responsible for taming our tongues, Someone else does—God! The Bible is full of verses that talk about this. In Proverbs 11:13 God says, “A talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter.”

Three tips for protecting your confidentiality

Do we have the right then to expect confidentiality from others, not just paid professionals? Absolutely! Here are three tips to help ensure that your words will be treated with the safekeeping they deserve:

1. Ask for it!

We live in a world of information, and while we should be able to expect others to respect our privacy, often they don’t. Therefore it is important to let people know that what we may share is for their ears only. If we can’t get that assurance, then we know not to share anything more.

2. Put it to the test.

Be selective about who you confide in. Let’s face it—not all people are equally trustworthy. How well do you know the person you are opening up to? Are you going to feel awkward around them after disclosing personal stuff, or has the relationship been tested over time? If you aren’t sure, share only pieces of information that won’t matter to you if that person passes them on. Then, if they do gossip about you, you’ll have learned a valuable lesson about him or her!

3. Stop talking.

Sometimes it seems we just don’t know when to stop sharing. When in doubt, don’t! It’s better to talk to just one great friend who listens to you unconditionally and never ever repeats your private conversations than to confide in anyone and everyone who will listen, only to be hurt later by loose lips.

But don’t forget that sometimes we are the ones causing the hurt by our own inability to keep quiet. How many times have we damaged a friendship because we repeated something we shouldn’t have? This point is important for both sharing and repeating.

As an interesting exercise, look up synonyms for the word gossip. You may be surprised to find that one of them is idle chatter. When relaxing with friends, it can be easy to begin talking about so-and-so, what so-and-so said and did, and what our opinions about the matter may be. It seems harmless, but is it? More often than not, no! Yet gossip like this can become dangerously addictive.

If you recognize that you have a problem with loose words, what can you do?

Beware of tongue “looseners”!

Here are five things to be aware of to avoid gossiping.

Tongue “loosener” No. 1: alcohol.

Alcohol can destroy the best of intentions when it comes to keeping people’s confidences. One drink too many, and inhibitions fade and you may find yourself sharing or participating in an idle chatter session that comes back to haunt you! You should always maintain control. (See “Alcohol Use and Abuse.”)

Tongue “loosener” No. 2: group settings.

It’s natural to join in when everyone else is chitchatting about a certain person, even if you feel uncomfortable about it. After all, you just want to fit in! So if you find yourself in a group that wants to gossip, you might try changing the subject of conversation. If it’s carried out skillfully, most in the group will never know what you’ve done. But you may have helped avoid the pain and heartache that comes from gossip.

The truth is, there are many things we can talk about with others that don’t involve discussing people’s private matters. It may take practice, but conversations that come out of sharing ideas can be tremendously rewarding!

Tongue “loosener” No. 3: the desire to belong or fit in.

The desire to be “in the know” can be powerful, heady stuff. We feel special when people confide in us, and it gives us an artificial sense of closeness. In turn, we can feel pressure to share information about others to maintain that sense of closeness. But remember, honoring a confidence is more important.

Tongue “loosener” No. 4: looking for validation.

When we are hurt or angered by someone or something, it’s only natural to want validation from those closest to us. Generally our friends and family are almost always going to be biased in our favor, so they are quick to sympathize and commiserate with our pain. We take our troubles to them, often revealing far more than we should; and they, in turn, discuss our problems with others who know us. One thing leads to another; and before long, incomplete and even false information has been spread around, causing more hurt than the original wound.

Rather than seeking validation, a better approach is to seek wise counsel. In this way we not only limit the number of people we may talk with, but we also choose those who have wisdom that may come from training or their own experience. We are seeking help rather than simply a group of people who will tell us we were right!

Tongue “loosener” No. 5: low self-esteem

We may also resort to gossip because we feel inferior or insecure. Having knowledge or information to share can give us a sense of power or control. It can also be a way to avoid direct confrontation. Instead of going to the person directly and trying to resolve the problem, as Matthew 18:15 instructs us to, we take the more passive route by venting our frustrations with others.

Each one of us has fallen prey to at least one of these tongue looseners at one time or another. But real friendship means protecting our loved ones from harm, including the harm that loose lips inevitably bring (see “Saying No!”).

Gossip no more!

We all understand the pain and damage that can be caused by idle words, rumors and gossip. It’s likely every one of us has been hurt when our words were spread about; and conversely, it’s also likely we’ve been involved in spreading gossip ourselves.

You just read some practical tips for protecting yourself and protecting others. It is our hope you will put them to good use. If you do, both you and your friends and family will receive the benefit!

Read more about this subject in the article “Taming the Tongue: What the Bible Says About Gossip.”

Debbie Pierce, LPC, NCC, is a licensed psychotherapist and has practiced for 20 years.

About the Author

Debbie Caudle

Debbie Caudle

From Canada to California and then Wyoming to Texas, Debbie Caudle’s journey has taken a lot of twists and turns, but through it all she’s had a lifelong desire to help others improve their lives. She has worked over 25 rewarding years as a licensed counselor, working with individuals, couples, children and families. This experience has taught her a lot about the challenges people face in conquering their worst fears and hurdling their toughest obstacles. 

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