We are certainly living in remarkable times. Unprecedented times in so many ways as a nation. Much has been written about our current political divisions and the way they strain familial relationships and create partitions and ruptures between close friends and colleagues alike.

Those brave enough to wade into the public (i.e. political) discourse with their thoughts and opinions are discovering the proverbial “blast furnace” from those who passionately disagree with them. And these exchanges can escalate quickly.

So how can we keep our cool and stay calm in the midst of heated exchanges when we passionately disagree with someone? Fortunately, our faith traditions offer us some incredibly wise and effective strategies for defusing this type of situation. The first is from a well-known proverb:

A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger
(Proverbs 15:1).

True story from the Reverend: I put this proverb to the test years ago when I was offered a customer service position at a large retail company. My specific role was to respond to the most angry and disgruntled customers—the ones no one else wanted to deal with. Sounds like a candidate for the world’s worst job, but I loved it! It was amazing to have the daily experience of witnessing the power of a gentle response to de-escalate people’s anger until they eventually ran out of steam. I ultimately concluded that it is virtually impossible to remain angry with someone who fails to feed the anger.

So, the first strategy in a heated situation is to keep a picture in your mind of what happens to fire when you pour gas on it. That is what happens when we fail to respond gently, softly, to those who passionately disagree with us.

The second strategy for dealing with those who passionately disagree with us is a kissing cousin of the first strategy:

Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1:19).

If we could all imbibe this wisdom it would profoundly affect all of our relationships. We often get ourselves in trouble when we react emotionally rather than respond thoughtfully, carefully, in measured and gracious ways. This takes some discipline and self-control but it will create a far more civil and meaningful dialogue.

It will not only slow down the tumble of raw emotion but also inject respect into the dialogue as thoughts, ideas and arguments are carefully considered and weighed. Practically speaking, this can merely take the form of repeating someone’s passionate beliefs and words back to him or her to give reassurance that he or she is being heard and considered.

Our world could use some help finding a healthier way to dialogue that emphasizes civility, grace and respect. It sure is a good thing that we have some ancient and timeless strategies to guide us. Here’s hoping we pay attention to the wisdom of the ages!

Click here to purchase Rabbi Daniel Cohen’s book, What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone?

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