When I was eight, I spent a week at summer camp with about 30 other kids. One evening, we all sat in a big circle in the lodge and learned a game called “Broken Telephone.”
One person whispered something to the person sitting next to her. The listener turned and whispered what he’d heard to the person on the other side of him.
And so it went from person to person, all the way around the room.
By the time the whispers made their way around the circle and the last person recited the message out loud, it was unrecognizable. And hilarious.
Repeating a message can change its meaning. The more links there are in the chain of communication, the more this is true. But even a single transmission error changes the message forever.
That's why it's best if you have a problem with someone, to tell them directly instead of talking to someone else about it. What starts out as a small annoyance might get translated into something unexpected … and not very funny.
Let’s say you’re irritated by someone at work who tried to make you look bad in front of the boss. You tell another coworker, Denise, about it. All you say is, “Did you see what Marlee tried to do?”
Denise mentions the incident to Raj, but unconsciously interprets what you said. It comes out as “[Your Name] is really mad at Marlee.”
Raj mentions to yet another coworker that you and Marlee are “fighting” now …
By the time the news reaches Marlee – and it will – you’ll be painted as waging an all-out war against her.
Instead of talking to Denise, let’s say you had a quiet conversation with Marlee about her behavior in front of the boss.
You might find out she had no idea she was making you look bad. Or, if she was trying to do that, confronting her face-to-face may be enough to convince her she can’t get away with it.
Imagine what life would be like if everybody complained ONLY to the person who needed to hear it. What would your workplace be like? Your family? Your community of friends and neighbors?
Would you be more assertive if you knew your words wouldn’t be repeated?
Would you be more vulnerable with someone if you had a guarantee they’d keep your feelings to themselves?
Of course there is no such guarantee. But you can lead a movement to hang up the “Broken Telephone” at work, at home, and in life.
Ask your colleagues to talk only with the offending person about problems, and/or start doing that yourself. When you have a problem with someone, talk to them about it, and no one else.
Tolerate the idea that someone you have a problem with might talk to others about you. Say to them only what you mean, and mean exactly what you say.
Let them gossip if they must. It won’t elevate them over you.
Deep down, no one admires a gossip. People recognize talking behind someone’s back for what it is: A sign of weakness.
When it comes to communication, leading by example is the most powerful, authentic action you can take.