Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have an interesting idea about gossip in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Instead of seeing gossip as some terrible moral failure on the part of human beings, the authors take a more deep and close look at gossip to try to understand just what is taking place. By understanding the role gossip plays, the authors are able to provide a more concrete reason for why we gossip.
They write, “Among laypeople, gossip gets a pretty bad rap. But anthropologists see it differently. Gossip–talking about people behind their backs, often focusing on their flaws or misdeeds–is a feature of every society ever studied. And while it can often be mean-spirited and hurtful, gossip is also an important process for curtailing bad behavior, especially among powerful people.”
Some discussions are hard to have out in the open. It is hard to go around openly asking people if the president’s behavior is crossing a line and is inappropriate. It is hard to openly ask the office if a co-worker’s clothing is unacceptable, and it is hard to openly ask the world if someone else is trying to do something just to show off. If we are on the wrong side in these situations, we can look really bad ourselves, and we can be very embarrassed if our opinions and ideas are rejected by the rest of the group.
Instead of putting ourselves out in a vulnerable place, gossip allows us to test the waters. We can quietly get a sense of other people’s opinions and ideas without actually revealing our thoughts and ideas completely. We can start to moderate our ideas and opinions and update our model of what is and is not acceptable, tolerable, or popular at a given time. Gossip lets us connect with others in a way that broad publicity does not. It can encourage social bonding between small groups within larger groups and it can help enforce the norms that our culture develops. These can all be positive and negative aspects of gossip, but it happens because we live in a complex and confusing world where we develop opinions socially as opposed to just individually. Sometimes, we need some cover to develop opinions that align with our social group to reduce our vulnerability to attack and isolation.
Human beings are great at gossiping. We seem to excel at talking about other people when they are not around and complaining about them or telling stories of other people’s strange behaviors. It makes us feel good to talk to someone else and have our insecurities about someone else justified, to have ourselves boosted above the person who is not around, and to know that other people are on our side. But that is all that gossip is. It is a form of self aggrandizing behavior that increases our political clout in our social group at the expense of another person and as much as we talk about another person, gossip is really all about us and all about making ourselves feel good.
So why does gossip make its way into our coaching relationships? This is a question that Michael Bungay Standier raises in his book The Coaching Habit. Bungay Stanier calls the temptation to bring gossip into professional coaching settings “coaching the ghost” because the person whose behavior and actions that you discuss is not actually in the room with you. Bungay Stanier recognizes that these conversations in our coaching meetings help with bonding and feel good on an individual level, but he is honest about the reality of the situation and how little gossip helps you achieve anything meaningful. Redirecting back to real coaching, he writes,
“The key thing to know here is that you can coach only the person in front of you. As tempting as it is to talk about a “third point” (most commonly another person, but it can also be a project or a situation), you need to uncover the challenge for the person to whom you’re talking.”
To move from gossip to coaching conversations must actually focus on the individual and how the individual can work better alongside the other person or how the individual can better manage the other person. Often times we just want to vent about the things we dislike or find annoying in our co-workers or family members, just telling someone what you don’t like or reaffirming another does not actually lead to growth. Instead we need to focus on what can be controlled, mainly our own mind, thoughts, and decisions. We can only control how we react and perceive the actions of another person, so we should focus on that rather than focusing on the person we dislike.