As a writer, I spend a considerable amount of time proofreading, self-editing, fact-checking and scrutinizing my words. I want to make sure what I’m communicating will be helpful and well-received.
But I’ve found verbal communication can be a much harder challenge. It’s so easy to blurt out something, only to realize after the words were spoken how inappropriate, insensitive or destructive they were.
Unfortunately, there are no “do overs” when it comes to conversations. Once we’ve said something, it’s out there. We can’t take back our words, no matter how much we’d like to.
The Bible describes an uncontrolled tongue as an “unruly evil, full of deadly poison,” comparing its destructive power to a forest fire (James 3:5, 8). Careless words scar relationships and harm lives. We get ourselves into all sorts of trouble because we are not slow to speak. Yet if we think about our words before we spit them out, we can prevent a lot of problems. At the very least, we may fine-tune our message to make it easier to receive. We may come to see that our words shouldn’t even be said.
The fact is, numerous situations can be improved not so much by what we say, but by what we don’t say. I have found that if I ask myself the following five questions before I start talking, it helps me keep my tongue in check:
Probably most people can recall a time when they got upset with someone about something that was supposedly said or done, only to find out later that the situation was nothing like they’d originally surmised.
A while back, Debbie (names have been changed) promised to help me out in a major way with a project I was working on. After an initial meeting, we put together a plan and set off on its execution.
During the next week, I was busy with the project, but never heard from Debbie. I wondered how things were going on her end. I tried calling her several times, but she never picked up the phone. I left voicemail messages and sent email messages, but got no response. It seemed apparent that Debbie was not committed to the project, and I was feeling extremely put out.
A few more days passed, and I called Debbie one more time. This time she picked up the phone. I immediately started on a mild rant about the importance of following through on your promises. Debbie stopped me in my tracks with the news that her mother had died.
Oh, how I wish I had given Debbie a few moments to fill me in on her life, before I started talking!
Always remember, there may be some important details you aren’t aware of that could paint a situation in a whole different light. Could there be other versions of what’s happening that you’re not privy to? This is likely to be the case if your assessment of the situation is based on assumptions or what others told you.
If there’s a chance you may be missing vital information, keep silent. When confronting others, allow them to share their perspectives before making rash conclusions. Nothing is more destructive or embarrassing than flying off the handle about something, only to discover you repeated something that wasn’t true or got upset for nothing.
Of course, even if what you’re thinking of saying is correct, that doesn’t mean it needs to be said.
Imagine this: Your spouse ignores your concerns about a potential business opportunity and forges ahead with the deal, which ends up bombing. While you were right in what you predicted would happen, it would hardly be helpful or necessary to tell your spouse, “I told you so” or, “If you would have only listened to me.” These words are the verbal equivalent of pouring salt on a wound. Saying them can only make a bad situation worse.
Consider this wise advice: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29, New International Version).
It certainly isn’t constructive to join in the office discussion about one of your coworker’s latest blunders. The restaurant food you just ate may have been some of the worst you’ve ever tasted, but that doesn’t mean you should tell the waiter. You may have waited an extra two hours at the airport for your friend’s delayed flight to come in, but telling her how miserable the wait was will only make your friend feel bad.
Before you speak, ask yourself: What am I trying to accomplish? Will saying something create a possible resolution or perhaps a bigger problem? What will be gained by saying this? Who stands to benefit by my speaking up right now?
If you honestly feel your words will help another person or improve a situation, it’s probably a good idea to speak. Otherwise, keep your words to yourself.
Another person may need to hear what you have to say, but bludgeoning him or her with criticism won’t get your message across.
I once knew someone who prided herself on her “bold approach” to addressing people problems. She had no inhibitions about blasting individuals for what she perceived as their faults and wrongdoings. Her approach was often unnecessarily harsh, heavy-handed and judgmental. She gave people no room to explain themselves and tended to assume the worst possible motives. I often wondered if she was really concerned about the people she was confronting, or if she just wanted to vent her own frustrations.
It’s much more effective to speak the truth in love. If we must bring up a problem to another person, what we say should be delivered with meekness and humility. Criticism must be rooted in genuine concern for the recipient if it is to be effective. If you take on the role of a human wrecking ball with no regard to other people’s feelings, your comments will be taken as a personal assault.
Before speaking, always ask yourself, “Is this how I would want someone to confront me with his or her concerns?” If not, rethink your approach. If you are too angry to use the kind and gentle approach, do not let your words out of your mouth.
Often we take it upon ourselves to speak up about a problem when really someone else should be passing on the concerns. I once worked with a woman who thrived on telling me what she heard other people say about me. She would say things like:
“Colleen thinks you wear out-of-date clothing styles.”
“Susan says you have a strange laugh.”
“Bob thinks you and your husband are a bad match.”
Those comments did nothing but make me feel bad. Did the other people really say and mean these things? If so, why couldn’t they tell me directly?
I’ve made this my personal rule: If someone tells me about a gripe she has with one of my friends, I don’t repeat it. If what the person is saying could contain some truth, I suggest she tactfully tell my friend directly. If the complaint is just a different opinion or a reflection of insensitivity or lack of knowledge about the person or situation, my friend doesn’t need to hear it.
Wise King Solomon said that a word spoken “in season” is good. It’s possible to say something very appropriate, yet at the wrong time.
For instance, three hours after your friend’s been in a serious automobile accident is not when you should tell him how bad his driving habits are. The minute you find out someone has fraudulently used your spouse’s credit card is not the best time for a lecture on preventing identity theft. When your friend calls to tell you she just got fired from her job is not the time to tell her why you think her boss didn’t like her.
In most cases, the best thing you can do to help a hurting friend or family member is to just keep silent and listen. When people are upset about a difficult situation, they usually just need someone to hear them out. This allows sufferers to work out their own solution by talking through the problem. If you tell them how you would have handled the situation differently or give correction when they’re not ready to hear, you will only add to their pain. Give the other person time to recover from the hurt and the initial shock of the situation before you share your perspectives about what happened.
Timing is so important. If there is little chance your words will be heard and received, it’s worth waiting for a better time to talk. Of course, there may be times when you have to speak up in the midst of an emotionally charged situation, even if your words won’t be appreciated at that moment (for instance, to try to prevent someone from acting impulsively and making a serious mistake). In general, though, it’s best to wait and share your thoughts when the intended recipient has had a chance to calm down.
Take the time to think about the probable effects of your words before you open your mouth to speak. Granted, when you’re talking, you may not have as much time to compose your thoughts as you do when you’re putting something down in writing. However, taking just a few moments to contemplate what you want to say can help ensure your words will be constructive. If you can’t answer “yes” to each of these five questions, it’s probably best to keep your comments to yourself.
For more biblical keys to better communication, see the “Communication” section on Life, Hope & Truth, including “Taming the Tongue,” “Speak the Truth in Love,” “Sticks and Stones: 6 Ways to Improve Your Words” and “Words That Hurt, Words That Help.”