In the previous segment, we learned that we are permitted to listen to loshon hora (without accepting it as fact) if there is something constructive to be gained. The Chofetz Chaim now poses an obvious question: How is this halachah applied in reality? How are you to know, before listening to a report, if the information can be used constructively?
The Chofetz Chaim offers the following guideline: If it is apparent that the speaker is about to say something negative about someone, then you should interrupt him and ask whether he thinks that there is something constructive to be gained from your hearing this information. If, for example, the person were to reply that the report could be valuable to the success of a business venture on which you are embarking, then you would be permitted to listen (provided that you do not accept it as fact). If it becomes clear that there is no toeless (constructive purpose) in listening, then it is forbidden to hear the report.
The Chofetz Chaim then discusses another case where one may listen to loshon hora.
Under normal circumstances, it is forbidden to listen to loshon hora spoken by one’s spouse, just as with any other individual. However, if someone has upset your wife very much and she is having difficulty coping, then you are permitted to help her through this situation by allowing her to unburden herself to you. While she is permitted to relate to you what has transpired, you should tell yourself that in her distress, she may be seeing things as worse than they actually are; you may not accept her words as fact. The Chofetz Chaim states that a primary goal in listening to the report should be to try to explain the situation in a positive light so that she will no longer be angry at the other person.
Obviously, this is not a carte blanche for husbands and wives to have free-ranging discussions concerning others. We are talking here about serious problems in which one can help one’s spouse overcome distress and make peace with the situation — and with the other party, if possible.
What if a person mistakenly listens to loshon hora when there is no constructive purpose? Then, says the Chofetz Chaim, he should try to correct his mistake by quickly finding a merit for the person who is being maligned and authoritatively telling it to the speaker. In this way, the listener may succeed in convincing the speaker that he is guilty of misjudgment and that he has no reason to feel ill will towards the subject.
The Chofetz Chaim offers one more case of listening for a constructive purpose. You meet a friend who is angry about an injustice that was done to him. To your innocent question, “How are you?” he responds with a ferocious tirade against the culprit. As a friend, you have two choices. You can agree wholeheartedly with his complaints, so that his anger will continue to rage. Most probably, he will later rant and rave before another friend and then another … thereby causing the loshon hora to spread further. Or you can listen empathetically without showing approval. Then, when his anger had been defused, you can talk softly to him, calm him down and help him see the situation from a more positive perspective.
A baal loshon hora (habitual speaker of loshon hora) in this situation will listen to the tirade and fan the flames of baseless hatred, adding to our source of exile. Those who strive to live by the Torah’s requirements in these matters will use their power of persuasion to uproot ill will, increase understanding and love for one’s fellow Jew, and help bring our Redemption one step closer.