When is the last time you overheard, or took part in, a conversation in which someone was talking negatively about a person who was not present? I bet you can recall such a conversation in the last few days! In my experience, talking about a relative, neighbor, boss, or co-worker – and saying things that might not be said if the person was actually present – is very common!
Be loyal to those not present. Stephen R. Covey
The Impact of Talking About People
In his best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey examines the impact that talking about people behind their backs can have on relationships:
One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present. When you defend those who are absent, you retain the trust of those present.
Suppose you and I are talking alone, and we are criticizing our supervisor in a way that we would not dare to do if he were present. Now what will happen if you and I have a falling out? You know I’m going to be discussing your weaknesses with someone else. That’s what you and I did behind our supervisor’s back. You know my nature. I’ll sweet talk you to your face and bad-mouth you behind your back. You have seen me do it!
When Talking About People Makes Sense
Now, I think that there are situations when talking “about” someone who is not present makes sense. For example:
- You want to find out if another person thinks that a third party would be receptive to your feedback and if they think the timing is good.
- You want to practice how to give feedback to another person in the most effective manner before actually giving feedback.
- You would like to brainstorm with others regarding who would be the most effective person to give much-needed feedback.
- You want to give feedback to a person with a group of people who are also concerned about that person’s behaviors. Sometimes this is called an “intervention.”
- You are one of several co-workers who participate in confidential 360 Feedback in a workplace setting.
Many people habitually talk negatively about people who are not in the room. And it is usually not due to these exceptions!
Talking TO, Instead of Talking ABOUT
A few years ago, I served on a committee that was drafting bylaws changes for a non-profit association. One of the committee members suggested including a clause that all Board meetings are open to members of the association. A Board member who was on the committee said, “I don’t think that’s necessary. Half of the fun of going to Board meetings is talking about people who are not in the room!”
In general, it’s just a bad idea to talk about people if you have no intention of talking directly to them. The most productive way to impact another person’s behavior to is talk TO them, not ABOUT them!
Questions for Reflection
- What are your personal habits regarding “talking about” versus “talking to” other people?
- What is the hardest thing for you about “talking to” someone about a difficult topic?
- How can you discourage others from talking about family members, friends, neighbors, or team members?
- Do you know of times when someone talked about you when you were not present? What would you have liked to happen differently?
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