We have all found ourselves in a conversation where our boss or a colleague is being talked about behind their back.  Sometimes these conversations are done in jest and with a little banter, but more often than not a line from ‘play to poison’ is crossed.

Helene Vermaak, director at corporate cultural experts, The Human Edge says that in these situations silence is definitely not golden.  “By keeping quiet you are displaying your agreement of the discussion and support for the individuals doing the bad mouthing.”

The group having the discussion are creating a villain story at someone else’s expense, without stopping to question the story’s truth or giving the person a chance to respond. A villain story is something we tell ourselves when we’re disappointed, threatened, or at risk. We automatically assume the worst possible motives while ignoring any possible good or neutral intentions a person may have.

“As the story is repeated and grows unchallenged, it poisons the workplace,” warns Vermaak.

These conversations can be as simple as not giving the person the benefit of the doubt, but more often than not there is more going on.  Your colleagues could be motivated by jealousy, revenge, fear or dislike.  “Whatever the reason for the toxic gossip, you need to speak up when you hear and see inappropriate behaviour,” says Vermaak.

Vermaak suggests using CPR – Content, Pattern and Relationship to deal with toxic gossip.  CPR will help you to focus the conversation by addressing the issues that are closest to the heart of your concerns.

  • Content:By addressing the content you focus on the facts in the person’s statement. This is usually the simplest and safest way to respond, as you don’t draw any conclusions beyond what the person has just said. Addressing the content frames the problem as a question of facts.
  • Pattern:Suppose this comment is just one in a pattern of passive-aggressive comments this group uses to badmouth a colleague. You might address this pattern by saying, “I like the way we kid around with each other, but not when we start to throw people under the bus, people who aren’t here to defend themselves.” Addressing the pattern focuses on perpetuating inappropriate behaviour. It’s a tougher discussion, but it may be closer to the heart of your concern.
  • Relationship:The long-term impact of corrosive conversation is the undermining of trust and respect. Relationships are put at risk. If you feel that people’s comments reveal a break in basic trust and respect, then you might address the relationship itself: “It sounds as if you’re questioning whether you can trust and respect her. Is that right? If that’s your concern, then I think you need to find a way to talk with her and hash it out.” You may prefer to have this conversation in private, instead of putting the person on the spot in front of others.  Again, it’s a tough discussion, but it may be closer to the heart of your concern.

Vermaak says that many times we only focus on the content, as this is the easier discussion.  However, for the problem to be resolved, the problem that you really care about and which will yield best long-term outcomes, is what needs to be addressed and resolved.