A client asked what to do when people around her were gossiping, now that she has declared a new rule for herself that she would not participate in gossip. Awkward. I told her to use the "crowd out" method. I first learned about the crowd out method in one of Patricia Moreno's fitness classes. She was talking about how to eat more healthfully and she recommended crowding out carbs and sugar by committing to eating copious amounts of fresh vegetables. Once you've filled up on your required amount of healthy food, there isn't room left for the junk. And, instead of thinking about what you don't want, you fill up on what you do want. Very positive.
This seems to apply well to conversations, too. If you lead the way by bringing up topics that are of interest to you, but maybe a little off the beaten track, people will likely follow suit. People don't really enjoy gossiping, it usually leaves us feeling pretty hollow in the end, but we don't really know how to break the trend. I challenge you to be the one to set the tone of conversations.
Maybe your family or friends like to gossip. Or maybe they play misery poker about their ailments. Or maybe they like to complain about the weather, the neighbors, politics or the state of the world. You do not have to be the victim of the current trend, you can author a new trend. I suggest being prepared at gatherings with three hot topics that you are actually interested in. Here are some examples:
1) What's your favorite memory about X? X could be a place you've all been, something you all experienced or a general occasion everyone has like a birthday or a vacation.
2) What's your favorite way to eat X? Apples, yams, vegetables, turkey, etc.
3) If you could change one thing in the world what would you change?
4) If you got a million dollars, and you had only a day to spend it, what would you buy?
5) If you could only have three things on a desert island what would they be?
As a long-time designer of conversations, living in a community of people who design conversations, I can also help you avoid some common pitfalls:
Be inclusive: For example, "Who's your pick for the Superbowl?" may not include everyone! The above suggestions were designed to be applicable to almost everyone regardless of age and background.
Do not ask questions like: If you could have three people on a desert island which force people into awkward situations of ranking people in the room.
Don't do this as a gimmick: Actually do the thinking ahead of time about what you care about and how to design a get-together to follow the course you wish it would. Mostly we devolve into gossip, negativity or fighting because of a lack of creativity and design, not because we aren't capable of showing each other a really great time.
Now go lead the way!