The Power of Speech Part II
We’ve heard it all before. We know that gossiping is wrong, we resolve to refrain from it, and then we are right back where we started, talking about others when someone engages us. As mentioned in the previous article, we live in a culture where gossip is not only socially accepted, but socially expected. No one wants to appear awkward or seem “holier than thou” when engaged in a conversation. At best we are merely listening, and at worst, we are initiating. How can we stop lashon hara in its tracks, once and for all?
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin suggests in his book, Marriage, a technique called “pattern interrupt” (page 310). When someone is engaging in lashon hara, rather than preaching, we can naturally and gracefully change the topic without embarrassing the other person. For example, if a person is on the phone, she can claim, “Wait, something just came up!” Such an exclamation is not a lie. Something did just come up: the lashon hara.
If that won’t work, we can shout that we spy a bug nearby, or see if we have another call coming in. Alternately, on the phone or in person, we can pause the conversation in order to say a blessing over our food, which can act as a subliminal message to focus on Hashem. These are small topic changers that can help us avoid speaking badly about others while maintaining the dignity of the other person. It is amazing what pattern interrupt can accomplish when done gracefully.
If you have a close friend who is constantly gossiping, you can ask her to learn with you sometime, or tell her, “Hey, I’m working on lashon hara in the merit that person X will be healed from his ailment.” People will usually respect this as long as we discuss things gently and not in a judgmental way.
There are many other techniques available to overcoming gossip as well, for example: starting small by giving ourselves one hour a day where we refrain from gossip. These petite increments can help tremendously, since they are manageable and prevent total failure. Placing reminders on key locations in our home, car, and office can also be great visual cues to staying on track.
Although we often worry about how others will perceive us if we do not engage in general gossip, the truth is that deep down, others’ respect for us will rise if we refrain from such language. Healthy individuals don’t trust or like people that talk negatively about others. It makes us wonder if they talk about us behind our back.
I had a friend that often told me personal stories where others had confided in her to keep secret. She never omitted names, and I felt uncomfortable hearing such details. Eventually, I stopped sharing information with her because it made me wonder, What is she telling others about my life?
The techniques mentioned above have always been available to us, and yet we still struggle in this area of gossip mongering and evil speech. However, there is one technique that trumps them all: Learning and being reminded about the effects of negative speech.
We already know and agree with most ideas about improving one’s character. We know it’s bad to gossip about people, and we know it’s not good to hurt others with our words. We know. The challenge is, moving from knowledge to practicality.
If we want real change to happen, we must re-learn about negative speech on a consistent basis. Learning about this mitzvah daily really helps. There are a plethora of books, shiurim, or daily emails one can utilize to be reminded just a few moments a day. Doing so keeps the lessons in the forefront of our minds, rather than in the back where before we know it, we’re gossiping again.
The key to success is humility and the willingness to keep learning. We cannot expect to read an entire book on the subject matter and be cured of using negative speech for life. Rather, it is better to keep that book on our bedside, pulling it out for a few moments each night, over the course of a year or more. My husband and I started learning one law of shmirat halashon together at Shabbos meals, and already I can attest that this continuous learning alone has prevented me from stooping to negative speech upon several occasions.
The other absolute must – if we want to stop lashon hara in its tracks – is to replace the negative speech with something positive. When we do so, we leave the conversation feeling uplifted, which was the deeper reason you wanted to speak negatively to begin with – to feel better about yourself.
I am just as guilty as anyone of succumbing to the temptation of lashon hara, but I have used this negative-to-positive trick successfully and have actually pattern-interrupted myself! Just the other day, I picked up the phone to call my husband in order to vent a minor frustration. Although embarrassed to admit it, I was ready to gossip with him about someone I had encountered. But, before I did, I took a moment to thank him for something nice he had done for me. That comment took the conversation down a different, and positive path. I had already hung up the phone before I could begin gossiping. After ending the call, I truly understood the meaning of the pattern interrupt technique. Replacing a negative thought with a positive thought is a great way to stop lashon hara.
This is all easier said than done. The slogan, “Say no to drugs,” was ostensibly one of the most ineffective anti-drug campaigns in history. Why? Because it’s not enough to tell kids to say no, without giving them an alternative to say yes to – sports, arts, or positive peer groups. We cannot merely say no to lashon hara, we must replace it with positive speech.
Understanding the strength of our speech, learning about the laws and effects involved, and replacing negative speech with something positive can work wonders to change our attitudes and behaviors surrounding lashon hara.