The front-desk person at our local gym can be uncommunicative at times, or so I heard before my wife and I joined recently. I’m drawn to people like that. So I set out to get to know her a bit.
On my first day, I made a few lame jokes while filling out the application. She only responded to the last one, but that gave me hope. Every day thereafter, we exchanged a few words as I checked in. Bit by bit, she started to talk more. Now she gives us a big smile whenever we come in. At 6:45 a.m., that’s a major accomplishment.
In my musings about dialogue, I find myself coming back to a bit of sage advice from the biblical Book of Proverbs: A soft answer turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). Have you ever seen this in action? Perhaps you’ve encountered a snarly co-worker whose whole face relaxes when she hears a kind word, a defensive co-worker who shows his human side when someone expresses genuine interest, or even a stressed-out child who responds to a soft voice.
A kind word, a soft voice, genuine interest: these are so easy to give away. Yet the signal they send is game-changing. In their presence, people open up, their hearts soften, their barriers come down—even if only a little at first. They see you as someone who, just maybe, can be trusted. Each “soft answer” builds the trust a bit more.
Now imagine that I wanted to discuss abortion, or gay marriage, or even a possible improvement to the gym with the front-desk person. Because we’ve built a bit of openness and trust, she is much more likely to hear me and respond honestly—in other words, to engage in authentic dialogue.
An apocryphal story from the 1978 Camp David peace accords tells of the opening meeting between U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Egyptian head of state Anwar Sadat, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Before delving into control of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the Sinai, and other issues that nearly derailed the talks, Carter asked Begin and Sadat to talk about their families. As each man talked affectionately about his spouse and children, his adversary glimpsed the human side of the person across the table. That bond, it was said, contributed to the breakthrough. The soft answer, the genuine interest, inspired them to dialogue more deeply than if they had approached the negotiations without it.
Here as elsewhere, I think people of faith have an exceptional advantage. A connection with the Divine fosters what St. Paul called “the fruit of the Spirit,” including gentleness. We can be gentle because it springs from the Divine within us. I found an online devotional that expresses this well from the evangelical Christian perspective.
Try it. Find an unpleasant person and respond to her with a soft answer. The results may surprise you.