"I told you we should have taken the other freeway,” I snapped at my brother. “I’ll never catch my flight now.”
The tense look on my brother’s face turned into anger. “I’m doing the best I can. There’s no need to bite my head off,” he huffed.
We’d been stuck in rush hour traffic in downtown Detroit, Michigan, for more than an hour, on our way to the airport on the outskirts of the city. Rather than take the freeway bypass around the city, my brother thought the road through the city would be more direct.
My comment made a bad situation worse. Not only was I going to miss my flight, my brother was now upset with me on top of it all. I wished I had just kept quiet and not said anything.
At one time or other, most of us have blurted out words we wish we could take back. Numerous situations could be improved not so much by what we say, but by what we don’t say. Before you open your mouth to speak, here are six questions you should ask yourself:
1. Who am I helping?
Too often we let our emotions take over and speak out of anger or frustration. It may temporarily make us feel good to get our perspectives out and be heard, but it may not help the person who is the recipient of our words.
At one time or other, most of us have blurted out words we wish we could take back.
When my friend Connie suddenly grew distant after years of a close friendship, I tried to get her to talk. After several failed attempts at getting her to open up, I became frustrated with the situation. Connie was no longer the fun, happy friend I wanted her to be. She didn’t want to get together and go to lunch or on antiquing outings anymore. When I did see her briefly at church, she seemed preoccupied and barely had anything to say.
I decided to write Connie a letter and tell her how disappointed I was in her. Then, I don’t know why exactly, I put the letter aside. Not many days later Connie called me.
“I was wondering if you’d like to go out for lunch this afternoon?” she asked. “I’ve been under a lot of pressure lately at the office, but I think things are finally getting back to normal.”
Connie had needed her friends to be patient with her. If I would have sent that letter to her and told her how upset I was with her, it would have only added pressure to her already stressful situation and may have permanently hurt our friendship.
Before you share your assessment of someone else’s situation, it’s a good idea to remind yourself that an opinion is just an opinion and not necessarily a fact.
Waiting patiently is a strategy too often overlooked in our dealings with others. Too many times we’re quick to tell it like it is, bludgeoning a friend with perhaps factual but unkind words to vent our own frustrations. Although we may feel a warped sense of satisfaction for a time, the result is almost always a scarred friendship. Ecclesiastes 7:8-9 says, “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in your spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools” (King James Version).
Along this same line is telling someone “I told you so.” Oftentimes it’s said between close friends and family members, usually in the heat of a difficult situation when one party obviously made a mistake. Yet this is rarely a helpful thing to say. It’s certainly too late to make the outcome any different. These words only make the other person feel like you are being critical of him and that you are trying to make yourself look superior.
Before you speak, ask yourself: What am I trying to accomplish? Will what I’m planning to say improve a particular situation or help the person I am speaking to? If you honestly feel your words will build up and help another person, it’s probably a good idea to speak. Otherwise, keep your words to yourself.
2. Do I have all the facts?
Most of us can probably recall a time or two when we’ve gotten upset with others about something they supposedly did or didn’t do, only to find out later that the situation was nothing like we’d originally surmised.
One of my friends has a boss who routinely calls her into his office to reprimand her about the way he’s heard she handled various problems at work. “As soon as I walk in the door, he’ll start yelling at me,” relates my friend. “But once he gives me a chance to talk, it often comes out that it’s a very different situation than what he was told by others—people who weren’t even directly involved with what happened.”
Proverbs 12:19 says, “The lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment” (American King James Version). Make sure you have all the facts before you open your mouth. If there’s a chance you may be missing vital information, keep your words to yourself. Nothing is more destructive or embarrassing than flying off the handle about something, only to discover later you repeated what wasn’t true or got upset for nothing.
3. Was I asked for my opinion?
Some people feel the need to blurt out dogmatic opinions about everything and everyone, even when no one asked them what they thought and even when it comes to inconsequential, everyday matters. Others think they have the answers to everyone else’s problems and can’t resist sharing their advice, even if it’s unwelcome and unsolicited.
I once knew someone who seemed to enjoy being a contrarian. If he was with a group of people at the office or church and everyone was commenting about how they liked a particular movie or restaurant, he would jump right in and tell everyone else how he didn’t agree. He always had very strong, negative opinions, which, once out in the open, always dampened the mood of the group.
Most of us have also known our share of “know-it-alls.” They’re the kind of people who can’t resist telling you what car to buy, what dentist you should go to, how to cure your child’s skin problems or what they believe is going to happen next in the economy and where you should put your money—even when they’re not experts in these areas and you aren’t asking for advice.
Before you share your assessment of someone else’s situation, it’s a good idea to remind yourself that an opinion is just that: an opinion, and not necessarily a fact. It won’t be the end of the world if others don’t get to hear your views of a particular situation.
If your opinion is opposite of everyone else around you, sometimes it’s better to keep quiet, particularly when it’s not a life-and-death matter. If you insist on making your contrary opinions heard, your ideas may start an argument. Or you may simply come across as a “rebel without a cause.”
Before blurting out unsolicited advice, first try to ascertain whether the person really needs or wants your advice. Chances are, the person is doing fine managing the situation on his own, even if he is making a few mistakes along the way. Passing on unsolicited advice may make him feel like you are being critical of how he is handling his situation and make him feel uncomfortable if he is not interested in your advice. If the person does seem like he needs help, ask him if he would be interested in hearing your ideas before you share your perspectives. That way you won’t come across as too forward or pushy.
4. Is it my place to speak?
Often we take it upon ourselves to speak up about a problem when really someone else should be passing on the concerns. I once had an office coworker who thrived on telling me what she heard somebody else say about me. She would say things like:
“Marie says you joke around too much at work.”
“Colleen thinks you wear the wrong clothing styles.”
“Bob thinks you and your husband are a bad match.”
“Several people told me they thought you seemed edgy at the last party.”
The only effect those comments had on me was to make me feel bad. I shouldn’t have to change my taste in clothes to earn someone else’s approval. If Marie was sincerely concerned that I joke around too much, why couldn’t she tell me directly? Bob may think my husband and I are a bad match, but he’s hardly ever said a word to me and he’s only seen my husband in passing. And to be told that “several people” thought I was out of sorts at the last party only made me feel like I was being bad-mouthed behind my back. I wasn’t even told specifically who made the comments so I couldn’t even approach them about what they said. I just knew I was being discussed in an uncomplimentary way—and that made me feel horrible.
I’ve made it a personal rule that, if someone tells me about a gripe he has with one of my friends, I don’t repeat it. If what the person is saying could contain some truth, I urge him to tell my friend directly. If the complaint is just a different opinion or a reflection of insensitivity or lack of knowledge about the person or situation, my friend doesn’t need to hear it.
God is very aware of our words and we are gauged by what we have to say. “Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and you on earth: therefore let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2, AKJV).
5. Am I speaking the truth in love?
Watch your timing. Three hours after your friend is involved in a serious automobile accident is no time to tell him how bad his driving habits are.
You may think another person needs to hear what you have to say, but blasting her with criticism won’t get your message across. I once had an acquaintance that prided herself on not “kowtowing” to anybody. She had no problem with confronting people about what she perceived as their faults and shortcomings and “putting them in their place.” She would always justify the way she boldly confronted others by quoting Matthew 18 and saying “it was for their own good.” Yet the way she approached others was often unnecessarily abrupt, bold, harsh and judgmental. Sometimes I thought her assessment of particular people or situations was way off. Even if she had a point in her gripe about the person, she was not approaching him in a kind manner. I often wondered if she was really concerned about the other person or just wanted to blow off some steam.
Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak the truth in love. Strive to share your thoughts in ways that come across as inoffensively as possible. If you take on the role of a human wrecking ball with no regard to other people’s feelings, your comments will be taken as a personal assault. Criticism must be combined with a genuine concern to be effective. “Letting it all hang out” is not usually a loving thing to do.
6. Is the other person ready to hear what I have to say?
Your friend may be upset about a problem and your first impulse may be to open your mouth and tell him or her what you’d do if you were facing such a situation, or what you think he or she did to cause the problem. Maybe you are sure you know the solution to your friend’s situation and rather than hear how she feels, you just want to jump right in and tell her what she needs to do to make things right.
In most cases, though, the best thing you can do to help a hurting friend is to just keep silent and listen. Galatians 5:13 says, “For, brothers, you have been called to liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (AKJV).
Oftentimes when people are upset about a difficult situation they just need someone to hear them out. This allows sufferers to work out their own solution by talking through the problem. If as listeners we force our solutions on others, we lose them in the process.
Watch your timing. Three hours after your friend is involved in a serious automobile accident is no time to tell him how bad his driving habits are. The minute you find out someone has fraudulently used your wife’s credit card is not the time to tell her how careless she is with her purse. If your friend calls to tell you she just got fired from her job, that’s not the time to tell her why you think her boss didn’t like her. Keep quiet and let your friend do the talking. Your friend is dealing with enough just having to endure the pain of the situation. Don’t make her have to endure more by hearing correction or criticism from you. Give your friend time to recover from the hurt and to get her emotions back to normal—before you share your perspectives about what happened in her life.
Take time to think about the probable effects of your words before you open your mouth to speak. If I had asked myself these questions, I would have only missed my flight out of Detroit. Instead, I let my nervous emotions get the best of me and that put a damper on my relationship with my brother. Make it a goal to use your words to improve situations and relationships. When your words would only do harm, keep quiet.