Watch your words. Guard them. There’s a famous quote that’s been attributed to both Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher that, truthfully, has evolved over time and been used in a variety of settings. You’ve probably heard it in some form, or maybe multiple. One version of it goes something like this:
Guard your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.
Guard your words, for your words become your actions.
Guard your actions, for your actions become your habits.
Guard your habits, for your habits become your character.
This got me thinking about guarding my words and thinking before I speak. Each of us are faced hundreds of times daily with the opportunity to do just that – to guard our words, and to think before we speak.
Several years ago, someone did a study about focus. When we're focused really hard on something, we sometimes forget to do other things. It’s why we set timers on our ovens. If you get “in the zone” on a given project, you might not remember that you had a lasagna in the oven. When so much of our mental, emotional, and even physical well-being is focused on dealing with the current crisis state, we can forget the little things, like the filters.
Let me make a quick case for why it matters. My family moved a lot when I was a kid, and every time we went to a new church, Mom would volunteer to teach the children’s sermon at least once. Year after year, she would teach an object lesson with toothpaste. Mom would squirt toothpaste out on a plate, give one kid the plate of toothpaste and a toothpick and ask them to put the toothpaste back in the tube while she continued to talk to the rest of the kids. Of course, the toothpaste doesn’t go back into the tube, just as words, once spoken, can’t go back to the state of unspoken or unheard.
Here’s a different example – think about the times that you, your sibling, a parent, a child, a friend-- any person anywhere--has said “I’m a failure at XYZ.” The more times they said those words, the greater and greater conviction they had that the statement was true. They gravitated to other activities, closing the door to XYZ and making the statement a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or the inverse, when instead of discouragement, a person heard affirmation; “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,'' and then, just like the Little Blue Engine, discovered that they could.
Words have lasting impacts.
There’s even a quote from King Solomon (historically regarded as exceptionally wise and exceptionally wealthy) from Proverbs 13:3 “Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives; those who open wide their lips come to ruin.” Think of times when a quick retort got someone into trouble or caused the start of a fight. Words can inflame immediately.
Guard your words – once they’re out, you can’t take them back.
Guard your words – the more we say (or hear them) them, the more we believe them and live them out.
Guard your words – they matter more than you think
So how should we guard our words?
1 – Wait. Pause. Slow down. Breathe. Take a sip of your beverage. Before you speak, think.
This works in meetings. This works when you’re sitting at your desk and someone interrupts you. This works on phone calls and Zoom meetings. This works at the dinner table. Be slow to speak. If you’re in a hurry, be quick to listen. Before speaking, run back through what you just heard in your head. We are moving so fast in so many things, so be slow to speak. In the middle of the 2nd Century, a writer named James who was also writing amid a period of disruption, wrote “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19 NRSV). Those words are simple and useful today, too.
2 – Run a silent draft and imagine the outcome.
Try your words out in your head before you say them. Consider the impact. First, consider the immediate impact on the audience. Then also consider the longer term impact on the audience. Run the Socratic test (is it true, is good, is it helpful?). Consider the people who might also hear, those in earshot. What’s the impact on them? This is especially important now as many of us are working from home with our kids nearby. We are in close quarters with each other, and our words will still have an impact on them. In his letter to Ephesus, written while he was in prison in Rome, a change agent named Paul wrote, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29 NRSV); yet another urge to consider the listener before the words are spoken.
3 – Fix it.
If anything you’re about to say is coarse, cruel, harsh, unnecessary, or will have a momentary or lasting negative effect, then stop it. Don’t say it. Focus instead on what is good. Shift your mind to something good, uplifting, positive, hopeful, pleasant. Paul again used his words and his rhetoric to help focus on something good. The repetition and rhythm of his writing helps focus the reader’s mind on the positive: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8 NRSV). Sometimes it takes a third or fourth try for the positive focus to stick.
There was a study showing that if a hundred things happened to a person in one day, and 96 of them were good, then human nature dictates that we will focus on the 4 things that were bad. If we are going to guard our words, then we need to choose from the 96 good. In theory this sounds lovely, but can it really work?
Let me offer an example.
Imagine it’s after a workday and everyone was in their separate corners but came together for dinner. Someone asks, “How was your day?” A fairly innocuous question, right? But, because you remember the four awful things that happened today, your first response is, “Crappy, same as yesterday! This is hard!”
Don’t. Say. That.
By talking about your four awful things, you are setting the conversation up for negativity. If the person asking about your day had a great day, you have now shut them down from sharing. If the person asking about your day needed a listening ear or a shoulder, you have now turned them off from asking for your help.
Instead, when they ask about your day...
- Don’t speak. Breathe. Take a sip of water if needed.
- Run a silent draft and imagine the outcome – I’m about to say something crappy – how will this person feel when that’s what I say – what if they have good news to share? What if they’re hurting and they need me to be the positive one. What if my mood is impacting their day?
- Fix it. In your head, you might say...Well, at one moment today, there was that funny thing that happened during our last Zoom call. I got a good response from a customer on XYZ, and I was able to figure out that one thing that’s been a hassle. And so out loud...“Thanks for asking, here are a couple of nice things that happened today, how about you? What nice moments did you have in your day?” Maybe you didn’t really have a crappy day, and focusing on the positive will fix your mood. And even if you did have a crappy day, taking a moment to edit your next words will help you co-create a better evening.
What about you? How do you guard your words? Chime in the comments or join the conversation on our social media!.