No one would deny the power of words, but like all powerful tools, words can be used for good or evil. And sometimes, our failure to use our words carefully can hurt others and our relationships with them.
We've all had experiences with people who purposely use words as weapons, but we've also known those whose simple lack of ability to think before they speak unwittingly leads them to embarrass themselves or offend others.
I was reminded of this quality recently by the story of a friend of mine. A friend of a friend had recently become a non-friend because of her tendency to have whatever thoughts entered her mind immediately spill out of her mouth. I was sad to hear it, but not terribly surprised. When I first met the woman she had reminded me of an old, no-longer-friend of my own who was too quick to share her opinions and criticism. This old friend taught me some painful, but very valuable lessons. Thanks to my experiences with her, I had seen the writing on the wall early on with this new friend of a friend and had chosen to steer clear. Whew!
While we all make mistakes from time to time and occasionally say or do the wrong thing, some of us, like the woman in the example above, consistently make the tactical error of not thinking before we speak.
These are people that I always think of as having “no-filter.” They are the ones whose mouths work more quickly than their brains. The thought is not evaluated or edited, it is simply formulated and translated immediately into speech. It's a dangerous pattern because once the words fly out of your mouth, there is no sucking them back in.
Do you recognize this pattern? Perhaps you know someone who is perpetually saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. It can be very unpleasant to deal with people like this, but our discomfort with their off-the-cuff remarks and poorly-thought-out commentaries isn't the worst part really.
People who continually speak before they think bring even greater suffering upon themselves. In my experience, they tend to leave behind them a trail of burned bridges and failed relationships. And sadly, they don't see their own behavior as the cause. Unfortunately, they often perceive their behavior in a positive light.
As my old, no-longer-friend used to say after she had thrown out a particularly cutting or hurtful remark, “Hey, I'm only being honest.” And honesty is a good quality, right? Well, not always. Others I have known also pride themselves on their candor, boasting about how straightforward or blunt they are and how that's gotten them where they are today. They don't see their behavior for what it is – boorishness. For them, everyone else is wrong and to blame for any rifts that may have occurred.
Think of the people you know who fit the description of the “no-filter” personality. You'll probably notice as I have, that they have few friends and one or more alienated family members. It's no great feat to figure out why. Being honest and forthright are great qualities, but as with everything in life, there can be too much of a good thing. Every thought that you have does not need to come out through your mouth. As the old saying goes, “If you can't say something nice, it's better to say nothing at all.” Or as Abe Lincoln said, “It is better to keep one's mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and resolve all doubt.”
By now, many of you have probably been able to think of people in your own families or social circles who are filter-challenged. Some of you, those who are capable of a little bit of introspection and personal insight, may even have seen a reflection of yourself. Aaahhhhh! If so, don't panic or beat yourself up. There is no shame in having a flaw or two, none of us are perfect. In fact, you should give yourself a pat on the back for being aware enough to notice it and brave enough to acknowledge it. So what do you do if you're the one who tends to speak first, regret it later?
First – admit that you have a problem. Don't try to protect your own feelings by deluding yourself that it's a strength. Take ownership of it. It may be flaw but it's yours and until you are willing to own up to it, it will continue to wreak havoc on your life and your relationships. You've done that already? Okay...
Second – make a commitment to doing something about it. As Alfred Adler said, “Insight without action is useless.” (or something to that effect). Don't say, “Well, that's just me, I can't help it.” That's a cop-out and you know it. You're an adult. There may be reasons why you behave the way you do, but you can always make the choice to behave differently. It might not be easy, but it's not impossible.
Third – Become more aware of what you think and what you say. Notice what issues, situations or people tend to bring out this tendency to blurt or spew or engage in a knee-jerk reaction rather than a thoughtful response.
Fourth – Begin to pay attention to what you say and even more importantly, the consequences of what you say. Recognize the pattern and make a commitment to breaking it.
Fifth - Whenever you are about to speak, pause for a moment. Ask yourself, “Is what I am thinking hurtful or helpful?” “Is what I want to say necessary or can I let it go unsaid?” Then proceed with caution. Don't worry, other people will hardly notice the pause, your brain works very quickly. You just need to train it to work faster than your mouth does.
Like anything else worth doing, thinking before you speak takes practice and you won't be able to consistently get it right at first. You've probably been speaking without thinking for a good long time. You'll continue to do so for a good long time to come. But your growing awareness of your mistakes, your ability to see and evaluate the consequences and your willingness to learn and try to do better next time will help you to turn on that internal filter and, over time, you will find that you control your words instead of your words controlling you. As an added bonus, you might find yourself to be a heck of a lot more popular.
We all have things to say and a need to be heard. Take the time to carefully choose what you say and how you say it. You'll find that far more people are willing to listen.