One of the primary things my wife appreciated about me in the first few months after we started dating was how careful I was with my words. I look back now seeing how many ways I was only putting on a face for her so she would remain my girlfriend, but she wasn’t the first to note I was reserved when it came to speaking.
I don’t like making small talk to pass the time. I’d rather talk about what’s relevant or topics that impact how I and the person I’m speaking with live our lives. Words have the power to do a lot of good or a lot of damage. It’s important to choose them slowly, following much thought, and to know what you are saying when you say it.
Someone recently shared with me a quote that sounds like a riff off of one of King Solomon’s proverbs. “A wise man thinks twice before he says nothing.” James, brother of Jesus, encouraged his readers to “be slow to speak” so they would not allow their tongue to get ahead of them and become unrighteously angry.
It’s good advice to count to 10 or breathe deep three times before speaking in an argument, providing time to cool your temper. At the least, this allows you to not respond in the midst of heightened emotions, and at best, gives you time to become aware of the larger picture to be able to approach the subject with more sensitivity and respect towards the other person.
Jesus knew that it was out of the heart that evil spews from the mouth (Matthew 15:10-20). If you speak without thinking, you’ll simply say what you have already thought about the topic or person, without considering how those thoughts will affect them upon hearing it. I once heard someone say, “If we could read each other’s thoughts, none of us would have any friends.” Thinking about what we say before we say it is a way to filter our words so we can be more accessible and kinder to others.
When you do speak, it’s important to know what you’re saying. How many conversations have you had that escalated into arguments that were understood later to result from miscommunication? We often hop into conversations neglecting full context or providing the other speaker our complete train of thought.
Whether it’s an argument with our spouse or a public debate, it’s important to start by talking about what led to the conversation. In a marital argument, ideally, the two people may review the events that led to the tipping point. This provides context, clarity, and, with respect, allows each to get in the other’s shoes and understand why their spouse did what they did.
In a debate or argument about a heavy topic, much of the miscommunication happens because of differing definitions or connotations of terms. An added layer is the emotional charge behind a social justice conversation, like abortion, racism, or the environment.
Whether or not there’s an intention to come to a compromise by the end, it’s life-giving to the conversation to define the terms used. For example, if person A says X but person B’s understanding of X is how A would define Y, they might as well be speaking different languages. There will be no comprehension to the conversation so it results in great frustration and wasted time. As dictionaries grow and definitions change by the year, it’s all the more important to know what we are saying when we say it.
“It’s not what you say but how you say it.” I say it’s both that matter. Stay calm, show respect, find commonalities, and prioritize the relationship above being right as you phrase the words you choose to use.