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“Ghosting” People Comes From Fear of Giving Feedback

In a creative writing group I belong to, we were asked to write on the theme of “ghost stories” before Halloween. While Halloween is a lot of fun for me, I’m not a good ghost storyteller. But, my perennial interest in feedback brought me to a new kind of ghost story.

Ghosting people

I remembered the term “ghosting,” a behavior that’s been written about a lot in the last few years. It refers to the practice of disappearing from a friendship, job, or romance without talking to the other person about what was bothering you. I visited with a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings, virtually, recently as they recounted stories of people who had been ghosted. They had seen or heard of it among friends who never called back, co-workers who left one day without returning, and in dates, partners, and, in rare cases, fiancés who never returned calls or messages. If someone ghosts you—poof—they’re gone without a trace, and you have no clue why they made this decision.

The ghosting phenomenon is related to the topic of feedback

Why do people ghost others? I think it stems from fear. Ghosters don’t feel comfortable talking to the other person about what is bothering them. Fear comes up through the “reptilian brain”—the emotional or “lower” brain that easily hijacks the logical, “thinking” housed in the frontal cerebral cortex. The thought of giving honest feedback to another person creates an extreme fight-or-flight response. While having to give feedback pretty much always taps the lower brain, both for feedback givers and feedback receivers, most of us usually can calm ourselves down for the conversation.

Ghosts on your work team

Leaders in work environments may have these future ghosters in their midst. The extreme versions are those just waiting to leave unannounced and never to be seen again. Leaders in these work environments may BE the ghosters who don’t leave the premises, but avoid giving feedback at all costs. They never give anyone the benefit of improving their behavior, and if they have an excuse may terminate someone for no apparent reason.

Four ghosting prevention tips

While these suggestions probably won’t bring back a fiancé or romantic relationship, they can prevent you from seeing ghosts at work:

1. Watch for individuals who are more and more quiet about their views.

You may notice an employee, boss, co-worker, or friend who talks less and less and seems distracted, sad, or unenthusiastic about your shared activities and discussions.

2. Bring up topics they may be worried about without putting them on the spot

If you can guess the topics they are most negative about, refer to some thoughts they may be thinking without asking them directly. Examples:

  • Yeah, that project took all the fun out of what we’re all doing. Must be hard for you guys who can no longer set up in-person meetings.

  • I sense that people aren’t happy with my management style. Any thoughts about whether I should delegate more and let you guys handle the X process?

3. Demonstrate your openness to feedback when someone else gives you feedback

Casually mention how helpful someone else’s feedback was to you. Use an example of behavior that may pertain to the future ghoster’s perceptions. Make sure you aren’t breaking confidentiality with the person you are telling about. For example:

  • I’m very grateful Terry told me that it shut him down when I talked too much

4. After you’ve warmed up with the other tips, ask them directly for their views

  • Ask in a calm voice

  • Do not accuse or disapprove of anything

  • Just listen and after pausing ask them to clarify

  • Ask them if there’s anything they’d like from you

  • Do not jump to conclusions in this conversation

If you have followed these tips, you should see some progress! Congratulate yourself for becoming a ghost buster!

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