Donna had dragged me through every store in the mall at least twice. I was tired and had long since been ready to go home. So, when she showed me the new outfit she'd picked out, I decided to tell her exactly what I thought.
"You're just trying to get attention from the new guy in the office," I told her. "But it won't work. He likes women who are pencil-thin. You won't have a chance with him unless you lose 20 pounds."
Donna's eyes filled with tears. I wanted to reach out and pull back my words. Although my little speech may have been true, I was entirely wrong in saying what I did, because it was cruel.
Most of us at one time or other 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.
Questions to consider
Here are five questions you should ask yourself before you open your mouth to speak:
- Who am I helping?
Too often we let our emotions take over and speak out of anger or frustration. When my friend Connie grew suddenly 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. I decided to write her 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 work, but I think things are finally getting back to normal."
Connie needed her friends to be patient with her. If I had sent her that letter and let her know how upset I was with her, it would have only added pressure to her already stressful situation and may have hurt our friendship.
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 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.
Before you speak ask yourself: What am I trying to accomplish? 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.
The urge to blurt
- 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 and even when it comes to inconsequential, everyday matters.
It's a good idea to remind yourself that an opinion is just an opinion and not necessarily a fact. Your opinion probably can't be found in an encyclopedia or dictionary. It won't be the end of the world if others don't get to hear your beliefs on a particular subject. If your point of view is contrary to that of everyone else in the conversation, your ideas may start an argument.
It can be all right to share a controversial opinion or unsolicited advice, but why not offer it as an opinion instead of a dogmatic statement? Taking the time to be gentle and courteous in relationships breaks down the barriers. Offer to give another perspective that might help, another viewpoint that could balance out the picture.
Look who's talking
- Is it my place to speak?
Often we take it upon ourselves to speak up about a problem when someone else really should be doing the talking. I had a friend who thrived on telling me what she heard somebody 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."
"George thinks you and your husband are a bad match."
The only effect those observations 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 were sincerely concerned that I joke around too much, why couldn't she tell me directly?
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, my friend doesn't need to hear it.
But what if it's for her own good?
- Am I speaking the truth in love?
You may think another person needs to hear what you have to say, but just blasting her with criticism won't get your message across.
Marital problems arise when partners think they should be able to say anything that's on their mind without concern for the other. The idea that because another person knows you intimately you somehow have the right to say whatever you like is a destructive deceit.
Intimacy does not eliminate essential courtesy. If anything, kindness is even more important in relationships in which intimacy has rendered each person more vulnerable.
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 genuine concern to be effective. We have to learn to speak the truth with love.
Open mouth, insert cork
- 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 what you'd do if you were in such a situation.
The best thing you can do to help a hurting friend may be to keep silent and listen. Often all we need when we're in trouble is for someone to listen. We need to work out our 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 husband is involved in a serious auto accident is no time to tell him how bad his driving habits are. The day your friend tells you she's getting a divorce is not the time for sharing your opinions on what is needed for a successful marriage. Give your friend time to grieve, to recover from the hurt, to get her emotions back to normal. Keep quiet and let your friend do the talking.
Take time to think about the probable effects of your words before you open your mouth. If I had asked myself these five questions, I would have suffered only sore feet that day in the mall with Donna. Instead, I let my emotions get the best of me and scar the friendship. Make it your goal to use your words to improve situations and relationships. When your words would do harm, keep quiet. GN