What you say tells a lot

“Well, of course it does!” replies somebody. “What you say communicates facts, data, useful information. It tells people where to find things. It helps them manage situations. It lets people in on things such as . . . “

Maybe the title should have been longer. Perhaps it should have been something like this: What You Say Says a Lot More About You Than You Mean to Tell. How’s that for a long, cumbersome title? (Now you know why I didn’t use it!) But that really is the point for all of us to think about for a moment.

A friend pointed me to a recent article in The New York Times about gossip. Now that I think about it, though, even that famous newspaper has trouble with titles. “Gossip” is too narrow a word for the research it reported. The article was about the sharing of information in workplaces, schools, and other public arenas. Maybe “informal communication” would have been a better term.

Things get communicated informally, for example, about how things get done in an office or which courses are more helpful. And, sure, there are the derogatory or vicious shots that most of us would call “gossip.”

One of the most interesting things in the article was this: People with healthy self-esteem consistently share positive stories and helpful information, while those who don’t feel accepted pass along negative and belittling stories.

Haven’t you noticed it in your workplace? Even in your church? Or family? The person whose information diminishes someone else or begins with “I hate to tell you this, but . . .” may have a vendetta. But she may simply feel excluded and powerless. And what better way to be heard (included!) than to bring a shocking report? To rally others who feel powerless? To unify the malcontents?

Sometimes the news that has to be shared really is bad. Sales are off. The roof leaks. Art failed a math course. The report of the bad news should serve to galvanize people into a solutions mode. At other times, however, bad news is just a means to the end of being heard. Being at the center when she has felt pushed to the side. Building a power base when he has felt ignored or overlooked.

So listen to the unhappy employee, disgruntled member, or sad-faced child. But listen for more than information. Listen for the deeper truth that he feels unappreciated and discounted, unwanted and ignored. Sometimes just being heard is all he needs. Scolding or saying “It isn’t so!” will probably make it worse.

And if you tend to see more negatives than positives, check your lenses.

Reprinted from Rubel Shelly’s Fax of Life.

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