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How to Tell If Talking Behind Someone's Back Is Helpful or Hurtful

When talking about others, even a well-intentioned plan to help may backfire.

When two people share information about another who has not given permission for that to happen, they are entering into a triangle with only two sides connected. Whether the people participating in that tryst are sharing a plot to deceive, or a well-intentioned plan to help, they are purposefully excluding the person whose life they are talking about.

Most people think of these conspiratorial processes as negative betrayals of the excluded partner and would never want to be the person talked about. Yet, in some cases, they can be helpful—for example, a person needing perspective from a trusted confidante or a therapist when in a dilemma, hoping to gain perspective and comfort. Another example might be calling a partner’s doctor to inform them of critical information they may not have that would positively change the treatment process.

Sadly though, many conspiracies are, in fact, more harmful to the excluded party. This might be sharing a friend’s romantic tryst, when the now co-conspirator knows that person, or telling another’s sacred secret to someone who passes it on. And once betrayed information is out, it can go anywhere, unbridled. And often it does.

Is Your Conspiracy Helping or Hurting?

If you are, right now, feeling uncomfortable remembering participating in a conspiracy, please do not judge yourself. Everyone I’ve ever known has found themselves involved in these betrayals at times in their lives, even if by passive acquiescence. What’s important is, armed with more understanding, how you might handle them differently in the future.

Many factors contribute to deciding whether a conspiratorial action is positive or negative, whether it is ever a good decision for you to be part of one, and what you can do once pulled in. Following are eight questions you can ask yourself to know how you feel about participating in or creating a conspiratorial process. If you are clear about your answers, you are less likely to be caught off guard when invited to create a conspiracy that could ultimately challenge your own integrity.

1. Is it truly any of my business?

This is the first and most important question. Though it can be very tempting to try to change things you are not in agreement with, ask yourself if it would just be better to let things proceed as they would without your involvement. It can be so tempting to play the role of the mediator, but not all people want to be rescued.

2. What do I want out of the process?

You would not be getting involved at all if there were not something you needed or wanted to happen. It is crucial to anticipate why the person you are talking to is not telling the other directly. You may not have all the truth or what may be underlying the process, and innocently get yourself involved in something you would be better off not participating in.

3. Is there any way I can effect positive change without becoming involved as a co-conspirator?

This is a crucially important exploration. Maybe you can find a way to tell the excluded person, if they are important to you, what might be going on in their own lives in a caring and supportive way, so they might share their distress directly with you.

4. When I’ve invited another into a conspiratorial process, did I ask my conspiring partner never to tell the other person?

Once information is out there, there is no way to tell which direction it will take or who will tell whom. Even if you ask the person you are conspiring with not to tell anyone else, you have no guarantee that will happen.

Those who participate in conspiracies may feel guilty or uncomfortable and have to tell someone what they’ve done. That may create a secondary conspiracy that, again, cannot be controlled.

5. Have I entered into a conspiracy because I feared something bad would happen to the excluded person if I did not try to help?

These are true conflicts with no easy answer. It is usually best to try and confront the person directly if you are worried about them and you have reason to be. If you have no access, and the person you are telling does, you might feel that you would cause more harm if you did not transfer that responsibility to someone who might be able to make a difference.

6. What are my conflicts if I don’t reach out to another about someone I care about who might be in more distress if I don’t?

You will err in the right direction if you explore how you feel about this before you decide to conspire with another. Perhaps you have personal conflicts or past traumas that are unresolved and you are accidentally overlapping them with the person you are talking about. You may be taking on too much responsibility.

7. If it gets out that I’ve done this, what will be the likely fallout?

This will depend, of course, on whether you are personally connected to the person you are talking about and how important that relationship is to you. Would you feel OK if that person told someone else something that was private or vulnerable without your knowledge or permission? How will you be seen by all parties if the conspiracy is exposed?

8. What have your experiences been in the past when you’ve chosen to create or participate in a conspiracy?

Have you felt on the right side of your own moral compass in the past and OK with what you created, or have you more often regretted getting involved? History is so important to learn lessons from that may be hard to face. It’s only human to want to help and to want to be part of things that matter to you, but are often regrettable.


The most often question asked of me is, “What can I do when someone pulls me into a conspiracy about a mutual friend, and now I feel guilty about betraying them?”

There is only one answer, though difficult to express. “I know you may mean well, but I cannot be part of betraying our friend. Please tell them that you’ve told me, or understand that I’m going to have to tell them myself.”

Choose Dr. Randi Gunther a Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor who truly understands the complexities of human connection.

Reach out to Dr. Randi today and take the first step toward a brighter, more fulfilling future together.

Dr. Gunther is available by Zoom or Facetime



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