A Soft Answer

a soft answer turneth away wrath

I want to suggest that there is power in a soft answer. By soft answer I mean a soft response to some sort of provocation, or at least what feels to you like a provocation. I don’t mean, necessarily, that someone is deliberately inciting or goading you into reacting. Although it may mean that, I’m talking about any stimulus—event, situation, or even thought—that causes you to react emotionally.

If you have followed me for long, you know that I talk about key moments which I define as situations or events in which you feel threatened, vulnerable, or upset. Our reactions to our key moments generally involve what we consider to be negative emotions—anger, frustration, irritation, fear, anxiety, insecurity, jealousy and so on. I could go on and on listing emotions. I’m just touching the surface here. But you probably get the point. You’re feeling grungy. It could be mild or intense. Furthermore, you may or may not even be aware of what you’re feeling. But the feelings prompt you to react.

Normal Human Reactions

This reaction is human, normal. It’s a natural response designed to protect you (better said your ego) from your more vulnerable feelings.

• Your partner barks at you (at least that’s how it felt to you).
• A child throws a tantrum for not getting her way.
• Someone pulls in front of you on the freeway, causing you to hit your brakes.
• A co-worker fails to get his part done on a joint project.
• A politician says something you consider outrageous.
• Your team loses a critical game.

What these events have in common is that they trigger your emotions, often strong emotions. Your sympathetic nervous system has been aroused and your immediate reaction is to:

• Strike out
• Defend yourself
• Shut down
• Put energy into building your case
• Try to manipulate and control other people in order to get them to be different

Notice that these responses are hard rather than soft answers to whatever is going on. You’ve steeled yourself against what is happening. Although you may be trying your best to not let it affect you, what is happening is affecting you and deeply.

I want to suggest that a “hard” response to an unwanted stimulus gives power to that stimulus. A “soft” answer or response is how you take your power back.

A Quieter, Deeper Place

It is so easy to assume that a soft answer is weak. In the same way that “turning the other cheek” seems weak.

But in fact, it comes from strength. A soft answer means that you respond to what is happening from a deeper place inside, a quieter place, a more grounded place. You don’t need to react. You can choose.

Most of us feel secure when the world around us gives us what we want. Life feels safe, calm. Of course, this sets us up to react when people or circumstances don’t offer up what we want. It also sets us up to manipulate and control other people so we can feel okay. But it’s a false pursuit. The more you react, the more insecure you feel. You’ve lost touch with your deeper, inner sense of self.

A Soft Answer Does Not Mean

Let me also say that a soft answer does not mean that you:

• Have no opinions.
• Don’t advocate for yourself, your needs and thoughts.
• Can’t set expectations and boundaries.
• Don’t trust and act on your own authority.

In fact, the stronger your sense of self, the more you become the source of how you feel. The clearer you are about your beliefs, needs, wants, values and what you stand for, the less you need other people to do or say certain things so you can be okay. You’re not seeking external validation. Nor does your well-being depend on external control. You can “grant” others their agency.

Ideas to Come up with a Soft Answer

So how do you offer a soft answer? Know that it’s a journey, not something that you master overnight. The journey requires a lot of self-awareness and even self-compassion. You’ll often blow it and react. That is okay. What can you learn, after the fact, from blowing it? The good news is that you’re going to have lots more opportunities to practice. Life is like that.

In the meantime, here are a few ideas to help you in this journey:

• Pay more attention. Notice what is happening around you and particularly within you.
• Be aware of the situations and events that trigger you. There are patterns to your triggers.
• Shift your attention from others (what they are doing or not doing) to yourself, your inner experience.
• Pause before you respond. This one is huge. Always pause. Give yourself time and space.
• Become aware of your breath. Concentrate for as long as you need to on your inbreaths and outbreaths, your inbreaths and outbreaths.
• Relax and soften your muscles. Pay particular attention to your facial muscles, your jaw, and shoulders.
• Remember that reality (whatever is happening) is bigger than your ego. You may not like it but it is a fact. Can you make it okay?
• Put a more neutral or compassionate spin on what’s happening. Change the story you’re telling yourself.
• Pause at various times during the day, not just when triggered, and take stock. Breathe, notice, and deliberately calm your nervous system.
• Practice mindfulness throughout the day.
• Take time, daily, for meditation. This doesn’t have to be long. Five minutes of sitting quietly makes a big difference.

I don’t claim that learning a soft response is easy. It may be hard. But it is some of the most important work you can do. It is a pathway to growing yourself emotionally. It is a pathway to peace.

A soft answer doesn’t change the world. It changes you.



  1. Sp

    Thank you Dr Allen. No doubt.


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