The ability to communicate is an essential skill. All relationships — personal and professional — depend on effective communication. This is true for marriage, parenting, friendship, leadership, teamwork, and coaching. We spend a great deal of time sending and receiving messages, and we need to get good at it. Communication is one of the most important things we do every day.
Words are the currency of communication. We use words to express what we think and how we feel. We use words to ask questions, give directions, and explain things. We use words to encourage people and challenge people. We use words to communicate disapproval and disappointment, and we use words to express approval and appreciation. We use words to collaborate and align our efforts with others.
Whether at work or at home, every great relationship is built on the wise use of words.
The opposite is also true. When we use words the wrong way, communication breaks down, alignment is compromised, relationships are damaged, and the health of the organization or team or marriage or family suffers.
As the Proverb says, “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.”
Being careful and wise about your words applies to face-to-face conversations, as well as online messages. This includes texts, emails, tweets, IG and Facetime posts, and comments in online forums. How much better our society would be if people used what they say for the benefit, encouragement, and edification of others!
Many today are slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger. Even a cursory scan of social media and editorial columns in the corporate press reveals a torrent of impetuous, even abusive, commentary… and it is ripping our nation apart.
What, Why, and How
Words are very powerful things, much more powerful than many of us realize. It is imperative, therefore, to choose your words wisely. In order for communication to be effective, it must be appropriate for the situation. In some situations we need to speak quietly and gently; in other circumstances we should speak directly and dispassionately; in still other situations it is necessary to speak with an emotional edge. It all depends on the specifics of the situation.
That means discipline and discernment are required.
The challenge is to use the right words at the right time in the right way and for the right reason. We must be disciplined and discerning about what we say, why we say it, and how.
- Be disciplined about what you say.
Examine the content of your message. Is it true and relevant? Is it helpful? Is it accurate? Based on what credible source? Have you done your homework, or is it simply an emotion-based opinion? Is it hearsay? Is it appropriate and effective for the situation? Does it make the situation better?
- Be disciplined about why you say it.
Examine your motives. Why are you speaking, writing, or posting? What is your goal? Are you seeking to help or to hurt? Are you trying to build up or tear down? Are you just spreading gossip? If you are expressing a critical opinion, why? For what purpose? Are you speaking from humility or arrogance?
- Be disciplined about how you say it.
Examine your method of speaking, writing, or posting. Are you using harsh and abrasive language just to be provocative, disparaging, or demeaning? Or are you sending messages in an effective, compelling, and beneficial way?
Communicating When Emotion is High
When a conversation is stressful and full of emotion, wise people don’t react, they respond. They are thoughtful and intentional. They are discerning and disciplined. They seek to bring clarity and perspective to the conversation.
Ineffective people, on the other hand, get caught up in their emotions and react with heat rather than light. The result is escalated anger, diminished clarity, rash words, hurt feelings, and damaged relationships.
When emotion is high, verbal restraint is essential. This means pressing pause and gaining clarity before you speak. It means not allowing impulsive emotion to speak for you. Pressing pause is a mental discipline that gives you space to clarify what’s going on around you (situational awareness), and what’s going on within you (self-awareness).
Your first reaction isn’t always your best response. When dealing with emotionally charged situations, pressing pause and exercising verbal restraint allows you to think with clarity and speak with wisdom. It helps you convert an impulsive reaction into an intentional response.
Many times, we don’t need to say anything at all. When you were growing up, there’s a good chance that your Mom said something to you that was similar to what my Mom said to me: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. Just be quiet.”
Here is an all-too-common social media scenario: A post gets your attention, triggers an impulsive reaction, and you express your opinion without thinking or considering the impact of your words. You are caught in the grip of mismanaged emotion, so you fire off a reactionary and contentious post on social media.
As a result, you experience a dopamine rush because you declared your opinion in a public forum and got rewarded with likes, clicks, follows, and retweets.
However, that can be false validation, because the likes, clicks, follows, and retweets are often from other undisciplined people who are emotionally impulsive. These are not the kind of people from whom you should be seeking approval.
Even worse is when we feel a sense of moral superiority because we denounced, condemned, or vilified someone who expressed an opinion different from ours.
Keep this in mind: Having an opinion and having credibility are not the same thing. Just because you feel strongly about something doesn’t validate your point of view. Strong emotion is not an indicator of a worthy opinion.
Listen attentively and speak carefully. Seek first to understand. Don’t offer an opinion unless you have done your homework*. It is foolish to give an opinion about things you do not understand, and it is the height of arrogance to think you understand if you haven’t been diligent in doing your homework. Be careful about speaking too soon and without considering a broader perspective.
*Note: “Doing your homework” does not mean searching Google to find articles that agree with you and avoiding or dismissing the ones that don’t. That’s not research. That’s confirmation bias.
Here is a work scenario: We are upset about someone or something at work, and we type an angry and abrasive email. However, before we hit the “send” button, it would be wise to Press Pause and think objectively about the situation and how we are responding. We should carefully consider the what, why, and how of our email message.
If we are disciplined and exercise that kind of reflection and restraint, most of the time we will see the ineffectiveness of our angry email, recognize the damage it would cause, and hit “delete” rather than “send.” The result is that we save ourselves and others from unnecessary clashes and conflict at work.
The situation might still need to be addressed, but an angry and abrasive email is not the most effective strategy for resolving the issue. In fact, it would only serve to make the problem worse.
A third scenario happens in marriage and parenting. Your spouse says something that irritates you, and your first reaction is an emotion-driven impulse to snap back at them. Or your teenager does something or says something that gets under your skin, and you have a very strong urge to “give them a piece of your mind.”
Once again, this is a Press Pause moment. Acting or speaking on impulse will only aggravate the situation and do damage to your relationship with your spouse or your teenager. Do not give in to the temptation to react; instead, stop and reflect. What outcome do you actually want? What response would help produce that outcome? What could you say that would de-escalate the situation and encourage candid conversation? Do you even need to say anything at all?
Again, do not let mismanaged emotion speak for you. Impulsive declarations are terribly divisive and do enormous damage to people, relationships, families, teams, companies, and entire communities.
Undisciplined people are reactionary. They do not Press Pause. They are rash about declaring their opinion and quick to speak without thinking.
Wise people exercise verbal restraint. They Press Pause and think deeply before speaking. They are reflective, thoughtful, and intentional about what they say, why they say it, and how.