“Think before you speak.” It’s a maxim that’s been drilled into most of our heads since childhood, so why is it so difficult to actually put into action? I’ll admit, my natural tendency is to say what pops into my head first, but as I get older, I’m realizing how crucial it is to choose my words carefully. I think part of my wake-up call happened when I became a mom, since young kids interpret our words literally and often feel their weight in a way that we more easily brush off as adults. The other day, Phoebe was behaving uncharacteristically badly, and I made an exasperated remark that she wasn’t acting like my sweet little girl. Her face crumpled as big tears ran down her face, and she said between sobs, “But I am still your little girl!” It broke my heart to realize that my words had made her feel that my love was conditional, even if that wasn’t my intention.
So whether we’re communicating with our family, friends, or total strangers, how can we make sure that we’re using our words for good? I recently heard a quote (sometimes credited to Buddha, though seems like it’s been used by many wise teachers through the centuries) that provides a useful checklist we can go through when we’re considering what to say and — just as powerful — how to say it. By the way, these work when deciding what to post on social media, too. Keep scrolling for the four questions, and I’d love to hear in the comments if you guys have any tips for thinking before you speak!
Is it truthful?
While most of us wouldn’t intentionally tell a boldfaced lie, in order to be trustworthy and sincere, we need to watch out for the half-truths, implications, and exaggerations that can easily make their way into our speech. Besides, when you never tell a lie, you never have to worry about being caught in it.
Is it necessary?
Something might be true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be said. Before speaking, think about whether your words will benefit or cause harm to others. If there’s no good foreseeable outcome, it probably doesn’t need to be said. In 2017, I’m resolving to be more purposeful with my speech and remember that both positivity and negativity are contagions.
Is it timely?
Have you ever felt compelled to say something that you knew was true, but only later realized you probably should have chosen a different time to express it? This one can be really difficult because it requires insight into another person’s frame of mind, which comes from being fully present in our conversations so we can pick up on their verbal and physical cues. I’ve noticed that when I’m really listening, I’m much more likely to have the wisdom to know if I should bite my tongue and save a comment for later.
Is it kind?
Lately, I’ve noticed that when I soften my tone and even slightly change my choice of words to reflect kindness, a tense conversation can be instantly diffused. Often this comes from an internal shift in my own perspective; when I view the other person with compassion instead of judgement or defensiveness, it naturally comes through in the way I communicate with them.
And remember that sometimes the best thing we can say is nothing at all. Giving someone our undivided attention and really listening, instead of just thinking about what we’re going to say next, is the best gift we can give. Pausing before we speak, and asking ourselves these four simple questions, will make our communications more purposeful and positive.