Maybe you lashed out in a debate over Scripture. Or a friend noticed how defensive you’ve been lately. Or you read about needing to lightening up and recognized yourself a little.
Whatever the case, you solemnly resolved to stop taking offense so easily. From now on, you’ve decided you will show grace to everyone who disagrees with you. You will be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
But then the next person you meet says the one thing that makes your blood boil.
So how do we defuse conflict? In answering this question for myself, I keep coming back to the same verse: “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). It’s become my guide when I’m in the heat of an argument or thinking up a comeback to a vindictive tweet. The stunning part is how often it works: if I can find a way to express that soft answer, my adversary often answers in kind—with a thoughtful response or even an apology.
That’s great, as far as it goes. But if expressing that soft answer were easy, we’d do it more often. We need a way to get there. Allow me to suggest a few: some short-term and practical, one long-term and transformational.
Strategies for Right Now
Go back to that encounter that made your blood boil. Too often when that happens, we go right to our default—fight or flight—and allow ourselves to snap off a retort from there. That means two things: we respond with all the fire and intensity that the original comment set off, and we use the first words that come to mind. We end up with a badly worded response in a tone designed to hurt and escalate.
And we end up looking angry and defensive.
The short-term way through this is to break the connection between our fight-or-flight default and our reaction—long enough, at least, to let the rage subside and the soft answer emerge. Several simple things can help us here:
As it turns out, the old “count to 10” advice wasn’t all that bad. Research and experience have shown that deep, intentional breathing slows your heart and metabolism, lowers your blood pressure and increases your brain’s theta waves, associated with drowsiness or deep relaxation. The pause helps both mind and body respond from a calmer, more collected state, from which that soft answer can come.
Pausing and breathing can be remarkably difficult these days, when conversations happen so fast. Usually there’s zero space between the last word of one person’s comment and the indrawn breath that launches the next person. Meanwhile, your fight-or-flight instinct is screaming that your entire identity rests on wedging your next comment into the fray.
That’s nonsense, of course. The key is to remember that, back off and breathe. Your soft answer may not get in right away, but when it does, it may have way more impact.
Search for Common Ground
Once you’re in this breathey-pausey place, pay close attention to what people are saying, and ask yourself, “Is there anything I can agree with here? Any place I can stand with, rather than against, this person?”
Lately, I’ve had several dialogues with gun owners. Personally, I don’t like guns and can’t imagine ever shooting one, let alone owning one. NRA rhetoric sets off my, well, triggers. But in these dialogues—where I rely on soft answers to evoke deeper reactions—gun owners have gone way beyond the memes and talking points to the personal values behind their convictions: passion for keeping their families safe, enjoyment they’ve derived from a lifelong hobby, fear of losing freedoms. I can connect with all of that. Suddenly I have this patch of common ground with them, however small.
Many people pay lip service to the common ground but rush over it in their haste to make a point. “I see what you mean, but…” and off they go. Instead, try dwelling on the common ground a while. Perhaps your next comment, or two, or three, should focus just on the common ground. That can forge a connection with others that helps you over the rough spots.
Choose Your Words Carefully
One glorious thing about language: It contains plenty of words and phrases to soften even a tough answer. Many of them emphasize that the response to come is only our perspective. In interpersonal dialogues, that’s not a wimpy qualifier, but a simple recognition that none of us has all the answers.
In this category, “I” statements force us to take ownership of what we say: not “That’s ridiculous!” but “I see things differently” or “I have some questions about what you just said.” Phrases like “it seems to me” and “possibly” and “I could be wrong” soften the response, make room for other opinions, and subtly remind others that maybe certainty is beyond them too.
Strategies for the Long Run
Short-run strategies are useful. They’re even more useful when joined to the longer-term, larger work God is doing in our lives: the slow turning of our hearts away from self and toward God as the Spirit conforms us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). The more completely we open our hearts to God, the more we reflect the fruits that are closest to God’s heart, including peace, gentleness and self-control. From fruits like these come the soft answer not just as a quick fix, but as our first instinct, replacing (or at least mitigating) fight-or-flight with calm and compassion.
As this change takes hold in our lives, we do something else too: we become a witness. Our soft answers are living evidence of the power of God’s love in our lives, and the appeal of this love to every living being.
Not a bad reason to let go of the snappy comeback in favor a soft answer that may just win hearts.
As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes on Christian spirituality, conflict and dialogue. He authored Why CanÕt We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart, and his articles have appeared in numerous Christian publications.