| Family Reflections |

Defensive Speech

Using calm words in times of stress will forestall fights and flare-ups


ike any Jewish holiday, Purim causes joy and stress. While the kids are in a state of high anticipation and excitement about their costumes, the seudah, and their shalach manos, adults are often in a state of high anxiety about the very same things.

There’s so much to be done on this busy day. There’s a sense of chaos and overwhelm. There’s also the pressure of competition: How do our costumes compare to the others’? How do our gift baskets measure up?

On top of it all, we need to coordinate Megillah readings and deal with exhausted and overstimulated children and rushed and harried adults, all of whom have had the wrong things to eat and drink. If one isn’t intentional about making the day a joyous one, it’s very easy for it to be a miserable one.

The Best Defense

Purim is a very good time to brush up on our “defensive speech” skills. Defensiveness in communication often refers to someone who — feeling insulted, attacked, diminished, or criticized — gets his back up. He responds “defensively,” either by attacking the other person back or by “defending” his behavior through explanations or excuses.

But there is another kind of “defensive speech,” one that is positive in nature. This defensive speech is much like defensive driving. A defensive driver knows that others on the road speed, cut in and cut off, neglect to use their signals, and commit a host of other driving offenses.

The defensive driver anticipates what a driver might do based on their behavior. She works around it, moving away from that car if necessary. She slows down. She takes full responsibility for maintaining safety and “peace” on her stretch of highway.

Similarly, a defensive speaker wards off trouble by anticipating the reactions of her listener. She knows what will trigger upset or hostility in a listener and carefully chooses words to keep the atmosphere pleasant and calm. This skill, aimed at preventing hurt feelings and conflict between loved ones and others, is especially crucial to have and to use when the pressure is on.

Smoothing the Way

Defensive speech in its positive form consists of choosing words that are calming rather than provocative. There is no guarantee that these words will prevent conflict, but they’re far more likely to help maintain the peace than other words might be. Let’s look at the difference between words that are almost guaranteed to add stress and inflame a situation, and words that facilitate smooth negotiation.

Baila and Chaim are trying to organize the Purim schedule. They’re at home after hearing the evening Megillah and Baila opens the conversation, anxiously recalling last year’s Purim fiasco:

Baila: And when I get back from shul tomorrow morning, I’ll have to clean up the kitchen before I can even start cooking, so it’s important that you give the kids breakfast while I’m gone. I’m telling you right now, I don’t want you disappearing on me like you did last year. You left me with everything to do by myself and that isn’t fair!

Chaim: I did not disappear on you last year. I was driving all over the city with the kids to deliver shalach manos. I resent your accusation that I just abandoned you! It just goes to show how little appreciation I get for anything I do around here!

And off they go, destroying the simchah of Purim. Baila could have made her point without the inflammatory language (“I’m telling you right now,” “disappearing on me,” “you left me with everything to do by myself,” and “that isn’t fair.”). Here’s how:

Baila: Honey, could you please help me set up and get ready for the seudah when I get home from shul? It would be so helpful! Then either you or I could do the shalach manos route after we’re all done.

Baila’s original communication was “an invitation to fight.” The second one will not necessarily prevent trouble, but it doesn’t fan any flames. The trick is to avoid words that are in themselves negative. “I don’t want to argue about this,” is inviting an argument because of the word “argue.” “Don’t attack me,” will invite an attack because of the word “attack.”

Only use pleasant words to communicate your needs and concerns. Doing so will help ensure that the communication will remain pleasant. And that’s what you want on Purim — and every other day of the year as well!

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 683)

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Tagged: Family Reflections