You're with your friend Jane and you hear her talking about Eli who is not there. You start to feel uncomfortable. You are pretty sure she wouldn't be saying that if he were present. So you decide to express your discomfort:
You: Um, I don't like to gossip.
Jane: I don't either, I am just telling you what happened.
And then she goes on talking in the same manner, telling you about the details of Eli's divorce.
Gossip is like anything else. It's something people do to meet particular needs of theirs. So, as they talk about others they are really talking about themselves.
Gossip as defined in the dictionary is "to engage in idle talk or rumors, especially about the private affairs of others".
My guess about the needs someone is trying to meet by engaging in gossip is one or more of the following:
belonging (if I know private information I am in the "in" crowd),
self-acceptance (if someone else is doing worse than me, I must be okay),
connection (by talking about someone we both know we can connect),
protection (concern that what that person is doing will cost the needs of others),
stimulation (drama in someone else's life can provide sense of intensity and aliveness)
Remembering that someone engaged in gossip is attempting to meet their needs is useful to the extent that it helps you to stay connected in compassion rather than moving to right/wrong judgments. If you make a request from right/wrong it will likely come out as a demand.
Interrupting is a key skill in NVC and one I have found particularly useful when faced with gossip. You can interrupt to connect with either empathy or honest expression.
It might sound something like this:
Empathy You: Talking about Eli's divorce, I wonder if you feel sad for him?
Jane: Well, I don't know, I mean he brought it on himself. He's the one who-
You: Yea, are you frustrated wishing he had more awareness in his relationship?
Jane: He could have listened to me when I told him to get counseling.
You: So you tried to help?
Jane: Yea, I wish I could have helped more.
You: Jane, hearing the details of Eli's divorce,I notice I feel uncomfortable because I want to hold him in a place of compassion and I can get muddled with details. Would you be willing to share how it affects you rather than exactly what happened?
Jane: If I don't tell you the details how will understand how it affected me?
You: Hmm, how about if I am not getting you, I will ask a question.
Jane: Oh, just forget it. You make such a big deal out of everything.
You: Yea, you'd like to just say what you want a say.
Jane: Yea, can't I just be myself around you?!
You: Are you thinking I'm judging you?
Jane: Aren't you?!
You: I'm really coming from my own needs and that doesn't involve a judgment about you. Would you like me be more clear about where my request comes from?
You: I am really committed to holding others with compassion. And I've noticed that hearing about the details of others' affairs when they are not present has resulted in my own misinterpretations and judgments of that person. So it doesn't help me in keeping my commitment.
Jane: Yea, that happens to me sometimes too. I guess I don't even know why I am talking about it. I guess I am upset about it.
Asking someone to express themselves differently can be tricky business. People sometimes identify their mode of expression as "who they are". As a result, they hear you asking them not to be who they are. As in the example above it can take a few rounds of empathy and honest expression for this to loosen and create a space for connection to needs.
Take time now to think a time when you were recently either expressing gossip or participating passively. In reflection, what feelings and needs were up for you at the time? How might you have interrupted the gossip with connection?