4 Ways to Handle Harsh Words and Gossips

Dear Friends, Dear Sangha,

Sarah and I often get asked how we deal with harsh words or gossips.  Yes, words are very powerful. Once they’re said, it is often hard to take them back. It’s like breaking a dish, then saying “sorry” to the dish and hoping it’ll fix itself to the way it was. We know that is not possible.

Before I share how to handle harsh words or bad gossips as a receiver, let me start with us as the speaker of good and loving words. We call this “loving speech” in mindfulness. Most of us have uttered words that we regret and vow to not say again. But yet when we find ourselves in similar situations we speak unkindly again and again, especially to our loved ones. Why? The answer is “habit energy.” The Zen circle often refers to this strong habit energy as a wild horse, pulling us in many directions and yet we are sitting on the horse and have no control over it. The wild horse is like our wild mind.

The good news is we can stop our so called “bad” habits.  We need to create some space in our mind to “act” instead of “react.”  The space that helps us to act appropriately can be cultivated with “mindful breathing,” which is the essence of the mindfulness practice. For example, when we’re angry, we don’t speak. Rather we breathe deeply in and out to calm down the anger.  This will take some practice. At first you might catch yourself after you say harsh words. Eventually with the practice of mindfulness (see my article on 4 Meditative Techniques) the space will get bigger for you to take care of your strong emotions before you act.

It’s hard to practice “What people say about you is none of your business” because words are powerful, as mentioned earlier. Here are some tips that have helped me over the years.

1) Understand that people that speak harsh words and gossip or have anger issues are suffering too. They don’t have mindfulness to help them take care of their suffering so they spill it over onto us. Once you understand this, you have a lot of compassion for them and you do everything you can to help them suffer less.  Your smile or peaceful energy can be enough to help them.

2) Don’t speak. If you understand their suffering you tend to not say much. I find it really helps to remove myself from the situation. If it's a loved one I say “I feel a lot of anger now, could we please speak about it later?”  I then enjoy a walk outside with the birds and the sky by myself. Later when I’m much calmer I share how I feel with the person.

3) You have a choice to suffer or not to suffer.  This choice is always yours in any situation.  Have deep awareness that only you can stop this internal turmoil. It starts by not blaming the other person. Blaming creates more suffering on both sides. 

Sarah and I always ask ourselves this question when we’re in a pickle. “What would Buddha do?”  Asking ourselves this question is like a reminder of “What would a good person do in this situation?”  With the energy of understanding and compassion, we suffer less.  

4) Continue to practice the dharma. This has helped increase my capacity to deal with the world’s chaos and harshness. More importantly, my capacity has helped me live my life in harmony with myself and the world. When we practice mindfulness, we can offer our community peace, love and understanding to lessen its chaos and harshness. Our teacher always says, "peace begins in oneself."

May your breath be deep and peaceful,