Psychology: Think before you speak

It feels good to be in control of knowledge that others may not be privy to.

311_Perez Hilton (photo credit: MCT)
311_Perez Hilton
(photo credit: MCT)
As a psychologist, I’m bound by the rules of confidentiality. When someone comes into my office, unless I have reason to believe that he may hurt himself or someone else, whatever he tells me, stays within the room. For some reason, I am rarely told gossip and am usually the last person to hear something on the street.
How do we teach our children to guard their speech, especially given that many kids, adolescent girls in particular, seem to thrive on talking about someone behind her back? Many people delight in gossiping, and the more they know about someone else, the more empowered they feel – at someone else’s expense. While at the end of the day no good will come of it and someone is bound to get hurt, try telling that to someone who’s excited to relay the latest piece of juicy news.
Most people have some awareness when saying something we know we shouldn’t. As it is slipping out of our mouths, we start to feel uncomfortable. We have a sense of conflict between finishing the sentence that may garner attention but won’t make anyone look good, and awkwardly stopping mid-story. There are those who after spreading gossip end with a well-meaning, “I shouldn’t have said anything and I can’t really tell you how I heard it.” Not any better. Once out, they may feel good for a moment, but they’re just as likely to regret their decision. By this time, it is too late.
That said, some people just don’t notice or pay attention to the voice in their head saying, “Don’t,” and others actively ignore it. In the end, the results are the same. With our lack of sensitivity, we say things that should never be said and often don’t stop long enough to realize that we have not only hurt others, but we have inadvertently hurt ourselves. Given this, why do people gossip? For some, it feels good to be in control of knowledge that others may not be privy to.
How do we keep from gossiping and serve as role models for our children in attempting to teach them the rights and wrongs of social behavior?
First of all, ask yourself why you are saying something. That may help guide you, both in terms of what you say and how you choose to say it. Then ask, are you making someone happy by your words? Who? Will saying something enhance or hurt your relationship and/or your image? These are important questions because if you don’t like your answers, chances are you may need to think about what you are saying.
The best way to keep from gossiping is to monitor your feelings and actions both before and after you say or write something. With children and adults alike, the concept of “stop, think and examine the consequences” can help prevent you from saying something that you might regret later. The process is easy: Simply force yourself to stop for a few moments, count to five and ask yourself why you are thinking about saying something?
Will only good come from it? If so, say or write it. If not, then ask yourself why you need to say it. What are the consequences of each choice? Gossip affects the speaker, the person being spoken to and the person being talked about. How will you feel? How will the person you are talking to feel and how will the person being talked about feel?
As parents, our goal should be to teach our children to be kind to others in both our actions and with our words. By treating others well, showing appreciation, and being respectful, we help others value themselves and we feel good about ourselves. Start by teaching your children to think to themselves, before they speak (or write about someone on Facebook), and answer the question: How will they feel if they were to say something?
Would they feel proud of themselves or disappointed? Why? Would they feel comfortable saying what they are about to say directly to that individual? If not, why not? Would that person be hurt by their comments or appreciate it? Are they proud to take ownership of their words and responsibility for spreading this information and/or potentially hurting someone? Do they think they are laughing at someone else’s errors or taking pleasure at the other’s expense?
How would your child feel if he were being told this information? Would he feel embarrassed by it? Would it be helpful or important for him to have this information? If so, why? If given the choice would he want or need to be told? What strengths does your child have that will enable him to cut it off?
How will the person being talked about feel? What will it do to his reputation? How would your child feel if someone were to say this about him? Would it make him feel better or worse? Happy or sad?
In addition to promoting this “stop and think” technique, it is helpful to encourage children to reframe the situation so that they can see the good in someone else and catch someone “doing good.” Once children and adults get used to spotting the good in people, they are much less likely to gossip.
Talking about others can become a habit and unless you work hard to break it, you may discover that others distance themselves from you. After all, if you can’t be trusted to keep secrets and not share information, people may choose not to have you as their friend. We have two ears and just one mouth. When in doubt, it is always better to listen than to speak.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana. [email protected]