Why Do People Talk About Others Behind Their Backs?

A Question In My AMA (Ask Me Anything) Inbox:

Why do people talk about others behind their backs and not to their face?

Answer: I canvassed about 35 people to get a bit of perspective on this. Here is what people said about the good, the bad, and the ugly reasons people had for talking behind a person’s back (TBPB).

The Good: TBPB is often not about intentionally hurting or diminishing others. People may be trying to…

  • Process their feelings with a trusted friend
  • Seek a resolution or a new perspective, including a positive one
  • Sort out how to have a future, follow-up conversation
  • Identify their own vulnerabilities, motivation, and role
  • Elicit some encouragement
  • Prevent the loss of a friendship or compromising it
  • Clarify what has been said or done and the various ideas possible
  • Avoid a future conflict or misunderstanding
  • Stop the spreading of rumours
  • Vent annoyances or frustrations that they can’t talk about directly

The Bad: But TBPB can be about hurting others if a person wants to…

  • Feel powerful or exert control that is less public (witnessed)
  • Be spiteful, spread rumours, or share secrets to ‘get back’ at others
  • Divulge their experience, even if it degrades or vilifies the other person
  • Indulge their own insecurities by:
    • Encouraging “negative” sharing or gossip
    • Joining into negativity to secure a place in the ‘inner circle’
    • Complaining about others to feel better about themselves
    • Ensuring others know and appreciate their ‘victim’ status
    • Creating divisions and forcing others to take sides

The Ugly: But TBPB might be more about one (or both) of you who…

  • Is fiercely protecting their own position and is ‘deaf to difference’.
  • Won’t have a conversation unless they win and you lose
  • Doesn’t want to hear about how or why change might be good or necessary
  • Prefers passive aggression to actual aggression toward you

Know Your Role

The difficulty with TBPB is to recognize ourselves in the ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ side of it. We believe we are right or we have a right to say what we want when we want. And we are complex beings with mixed motives and paradoxical mindsets. However, a quick way to dig into this is to ask yourself what you will gain and lose by having these discussions. Basically, what’s the end game, or the goal, for all this talking?

Share, But Maybe Not Everything

Not everything that can be said should be said.

A wise woman once said this to me a couple of decades ago and I have tried to live out this wisdom ever since, with varying degrees of success. But—I find that I am most likely to engage in TBPB when I am feeling insecure or powerless and need to establish a sense of control. When I am settled, secure, and safe within my own life context, I find that I listen more and speak less. I don’t think this is a co-incidence or a one-off experience and maybe this tendency resonates for you as well.

Try This Experiment

Speak less (or not at all) about a person who has wronged you when everything in you wants to share all the juicy details. See if any anxiousness or distress comes up for you, any sense of entitlement, or even a desire to hurt or even a score. Then dig in and discern what might be going on with you (besides that the fact that there is this intolerable person who is making your life miserable). Then, deal with that before you dish it out.

Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC

Twitter: @gottasecond

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