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8 Things to Do If You're the Target of Hurtful Gossip

Before you lash out, learn how to de-identify and maintain your perspective.

Source: KieferPix/Shutterstock

When Caroline moved to a new city for a job with a company she was thrilled to join, she was surprised to find that she had a hard time building friendships and establishing positive relationships with her colleagues. A few months later, she discovered why: Someone from her previous company had falsely told one of her new colleagues that Caroline tries to get others to do her work for her.

Gossip like this can have devastating consequences. We tend to have a strong negativity bias: Almost all of us pay more attention to negative information than we do to positive information. Think about the last time you posted something to Facebook, for example, and got a string of enthusiastic comments followed by a single, stinging rebuke. Which comment did you focus on?

We react similarly to information about others. Research by Stanford University's Rob Willer shows that we take negative gossip about others seriously because we view it as useful information that can protect us. The result is that when someone spreads false rumors about you, it’s hard to shake off that reputation. This can damage your personal and professional opportunities and it's also extremely stressful.

What are some steps you can take if this happens to you? Some people think that being a considerate colleague and friendly collaborator should protect you. And while this is true in most cases—research shows that being a respectful and kind colleague does lead to positive professional results—you are not completely immune, and you can still be prey to jealousy or envy.

If you are facing hurtful rumors, you’ll need to use emotional intelligence to avoid making the situation any worse—and, ideally, to make it better. These eight tips can help turn the situation around:

1. Regulate your negative emotions.

There is only so much you can do about the situations you face, but there is a lot you can do about how you respond to them. Many people initially respond with feelings of horror, anger, anxiety, or even helplessness when confronted with negative gossip about themselves. This is especially true when the rumors are false and you feel trapped in an unfair situation. As a result, you can lose motivation and succumb to the negative effects of stress or just become angry. “Taking a moment to step back from these situations [and] simply label your emotions can be very helpful,” says Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Use the calming strategies that work best for you: breathing, mindfulness, unplugging from work, working out, or taking walks. Give yourself time to cool off. Chances are you will come up with a far more constructive solution to your problem once the emotions have died down.

2. Expand your perspective.

“Because these kinds of situations seem unfair, you feel powerless and can lose sight of the big picture," says Johann Berlin, CEO of TLEX Institute. "You either want to fight or you shut down. In other words, you’re either angry or you’re depressed or ashamed. That’s when you need to step back and ask yourself: What does success mean to you in that moment? Does it mean winning? Or does it mean regaining that feeling of power and confidence?”

We know from research that negative emotions like stress are associated with a narrower perspective and a tendency toward self-focus—in other words, your perception is skewed. We all know we’re not at our best when we’re upset. To figure out a constructive solution, we need to snap out of a negative mindset.

3. Practice self-compassion, and even forgiveness.

“During those difficult moments, you can feel like you’re in a dark place and there’s no way out, but cultivating forgiveness and compassion, soft as these terms may sound, can actually be highly effective,” Berlin says. Research supports the idea that when you forgive someone, the person who benefits most is you. Forgiveness can help you move on, improve your health and well-being, and generally lighten your step.

In Caroline’s case, being able to cultivate forgiveness and even compassion for the gossip perpetrator actually helped free her from her negative feelings. As a result, she experienced renewed energy to prove herself—regardless of wagging tongues. She was able to come up with creative new ways to build relationships and demonstrate her work ethic in her new workplace. “Of course, when you’re really upset, it’s hard to generate positive feelings,” Berlin points out. "That’s where exercises like yoga, breathing, and meditation, that calm you down, can help you get your bearings so you’re ready for a fresh start."

4. De-identify from the situation.

Recognize that the situation is not necessarily a reflection of you. Michael Kraus of the Yale School of Management points out the importance of de-identifying from the situation: “The most important thing to realize about these kinds of problem behaviors is that they aren’t about you. They are actually the behavior of someone who is nervous and anxious about their position within an organization. People lash out, gossip, and snipe at others to protect their fragile selves. They tear you down to make themselves look slightly better by comparison.”

That said, you still need to be honest with yourself. “Sometimes people are deserving of negative gossip," Willer says, "but don’t perceive it that way.” It’s important to probe into whether there is some truth in what is being said about you.

5. Consider how to respond.

If you know who is behind the rumors, Willer suggests, however challenging or awkward it may feel to do so, that you "offer your perspective to the ‘lead gossip.’ If you honestly explain your perspective, and the personal pain that the gossip is causing you, perhaps you can change that person's perspective.” Here again, it is important to de-identify from the situation and regulate your emotions. As Willer points out, “It's critical to approach the person in a sympathetic, non-confrontational way, so that you can win their sympathies.” You'll want to speak to them from a place that is cool and collected.

Caroline reached out to colleagues at her former workplace in order to understand where the gossip came from, but she could not identify the source. In cases like this, Willer suggests, "enlist friends or trusted acquaintances who give your side of the story to very frankly and reasonably counteract the gossip.”

6. Give it time.

Remember that time is on your side. "As the victim," Kraus advises, "you should play the long game. You have a reputation that is built on a large body of work across many co-workers. One inconsistent bit of sabotage could be harmful in the short term, but the long term is likely to bear out a different picture.” Willer also suggests performing and acting with high integrity and letting your actions speak for you.

7. Focus on what’s going right.

We know that the mind clings to the negative, but research also shows us that every day, more positive things happen to us than negative things. At any given time, many things are going right in our lives. You could be enjoying what you're doing at work, feel grateful for the paycheck, or appreciate the organization’s values or benefits. Or you could be focusing on the joy you derive from your family, friends, hobbies, sports, or community service. When we savor our experiences, we derive more pleasure and satisfaction from them. Spending time feeling grateful for what else is going right in your life will help you weather the rest. Caroline spent hours every week devoted to a community service activity from which she derived the joy and strength that enabled her to face her other challenges.

8. Remember that you are not alone.

The most challenging aspect of going through a difficult experience is the sense of being alone in it. Kraus says, “This behavior is likely chronic across the organization, and so you’re not alone in dealing with it—other people are experiencing something similar to you, and so you have potential alliances with colleagues that can be built around this behavior.” Caroline later found out that her new organization did have a serious cultural issue: A survey showed that most employees were highly disgruntled with leadership and were generally unhappy. The politics she had found herself in were, in the end, a reflection of a much larger organizational issue.

It’s difficult to be the subject of a negative rumor, particularly one that has no basis in reality. You can’t always control what other people say about you, but you can control how you respond—and you can be resilient.

A version of this article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review.

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