Dear Lauren,

All my family does is gossip! I love them and they're good people (...and I can't pretend I don't join in or laugh when it's funny...) but it's such a problem. What do I do?

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

This is a really good question, because it’s universal. Everyone, at one point or another, disagrees with the paths/actions/opinions of his or her family. The million-dollar-question is: how do I handle that?

The answer depends on a lot of factors. The first factor to consider is the nature of your family members. Some of your family members might be the kind of people who are open to change and open to suggestions about changing themselves. Some of your family members might have fragile egos and/or live in denial (the two usually go together) and can never hear criticism directed at them without launching into long speeches denying their culpability for anything, ever. Those kinds of people most likely would not be good candidates for asking them to embark on a program of personal change.

Even if your family members are willing to hear constructive criticism about their behaviors, it’s smart to say it in a way that they can hear it. Let me explain what I mean.

When I was in my early 20’s, my husband and I had to decide which city to live in for a year while he did an internal medicine internship. I desperately wanted to do the year in Memphis, where I’m from. So I asked a wise older woman what to do, and she told me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. She said: “Wait for a time when he’s relaxed. Cook a nice meal, eat it together, have a nice time. Make sure he’s not too hungry or too tired. Then tell him, ‘You know, it would make me really happy if we spent that year in Memphis.’” I am pleased to report: we spent that year in Memphis!

How can that advice be translated into your family’s situation?

  1. Wait for a time when the family member/s you want to talk to are relaxed. Do not have this conversation when everyone is running out the door to a meeting/to the first day of school/to soccer practice. Do not have this conversation when everyone is upset and riled up.
  2. Do something nice for them that you know they like (let your sister borrow your iPod, help your parents around the house willingly and happily, take care of your younger siblings, compliment them on something they did well….)
  3. Make sure they’re not hungry, tired, overwhelmed, stressed out, upset, or in any way agitated.
  4. Then tell them, “You know, I’ve been thinking about it. I think maybe our family shouldn’t talk about other people. I don’t want to be a gossip!”

Notice how you said “I” and “I think” and “I don’t want to be…”, putting the emphasis on “this is only my opinion.” Even when you feel strongly that something is right, casting it as “this is only my opinion” helps the other party not be defensive. It helps the other party be more open to what you’re saying. If you strongly insist “My way is the ONLY way!”, they will probably dig their heels in and proclaim, “NO! I disagree!”

Even with my clients, who are paying me to give them advice, I have to say it in a way that they can hear it. If I would just tell them, “You are a gossip. It’s disgusting. You’d better stop, NOW!” They not only wouldn’t listen to my advice, they wouldn’t want a relationship with me, either. They’d never come back! Instead, I’m always saying, “I might be wrong. But I’m listening to you, and I’m hearing…[whatever my observation might be.]. What do you want to do about that? Again, I might be wrong. But I might be correct, so what do you want to do?” I don’t insist, and, probably, neither should you, if you want your family members to actually think about what you’re telling them.

The first step is telling them (but only if they are the kind of people who would be able to hear constructive criticism). The second step is, WHEN (not IF, but WHEN!) they gossip again: be still. Be still, be calm, be peaceful. Don’t fight them. Fighting, gangster-style, or bar-brawl-style, only begets belligerence and fighting back.

A better approach is the still, calm, centered, contented tack. Stay calm, recognize that gossiping is occurring, and deftly change the subject. “Oh! I just remembered I heard the most amazing story!” And launch into the telling. (You’ll have to have a few stories or jokes or interesting anecdotes up your sleeve at all times. Maybe carry around note cards—ha!) Or recognize that gossiping is occurring, stay calm, and just kind of smile a gentle smile and say nothing, then gently get up to go to the bathroom—and linger there.

Another way: I have a friend who’s really good at ignoring gossip in conversation—and totally engaging with the people around her otherwise. She’s very gregarious and friendly and vivacious, and as soon as someone gossips about someone else, she just gets quiet and it’s as if she didn’t even hear. So the conversation just stops, until she—or someone else—starts it again, sans the nastiness. (By the way, this latter approach would be the way to go with those family members who can’t hear any constructive criticism.)

I applaud your wanting to do the right thing. It is really important not to talk about other people, especially negatively. It’s also important to balance not gossiping and not listening to gossip with being kind to your family. You should never yell at your family or degrade them—just as you shouldn’t stand their doing that to others.

Of course, remember the cardinal rule: you usually can’t change anyone else; the only person you can change for sure is yourself. Because you wrote to me asking this question, I know you know it’s wrong to join in or laugh with them when they’re trashing someone. It takes strength to change ourselves, and even more strength when we’re going it alone. But there’s no better feeling than doing the right thing, especially when it’s hard to do.