It’s what we do. We talk about each other, yet we don’t like it when we know that others are talking about us, “talking behind my back.” Sometimes we worry that what someone might be saying is something they wouldn’t say directly to us. This may well be true and that thought makes us feel bad.
So, what’s going on here? First, it’s normal and natural to talk about family members or friends with each other. It’s natural at work, too, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion, even though some of the following principles still apply. Second, it is natural to have concern for loved ones and want to be helpful if they are in distress. Therefore, we want to figure out what, if anything, we can do to help.
If something good is happening, no one seems to object to being talked about, however, when something difficult is going on, we get more skittish. We don’t want to be judged or blamed. We want to be understood. And this is tricky. Being understood is not about being right or wrong. It’s about the acknowledgment of our reality and the distress we are in, regardless of the cause.
That gets to the heart of talking about others we care about when they are not present. Do we really understand and care? If so, then we’re on strong ground. But if we are gossiping or feel superior or judgmental, then we’re on shaky ground. What our intentions are do matter.
Often if someone we care about is in distress, we also feel some distress (worry). We want to help, and often we don’t know what to say or do. Then we talk with someone else to relieve some stress and anxiety, perhaps get some perspective, and maybe even find a way to be supportive/helpful . . . or discover that we probably shouldn’t say much at all, other than acknowledge our love and support.
Many years ago when I was going through a very difficult time in my life, my parents talked with my brother and complained about me. They were upset and didn’t feel that I was handling the situation very well. When my brother confronted them about their negativity and judgments, he said, “If you want to be helpful, why don’t you ask him about what he’s going through and express your concern for him?”
My brother’s question gets to the point. Judging and blaming others helps no one. If your intention is to be helpful (and frankly, it should be), then find out what’s important to the other person and see if there is a genuine way to be helpful.
If our talk behind the back of a loved one results in taking this step, then we’re probably headed in the right direction. But if the talk is about mutually complaining, criticizing, and blaming, then we need to take stock and question our motives.
Communication Tip: “I’d like to better understand what you’re going through and what’s most important to you.”