Jan 232011

The tongue is a marvellous organ. Used wisely, you can instruct, communicate ideas, make great conversation and enjoy good company. But like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the tongue can also cause your downfall when you say the wrong thing. How many people have ruined their careers, brought down empires or destroyed relationships simply because they could not control that 4-inch beast in their mouths? Yet not all is lost. In this article, I shall share some insights on how to control our tongue and words by drawing on a little history and personal experience.

Words: Writing VS Speaking

There are two types of communication where we can make mistakes. The first is the words we write. This refers to anything that requires time for a response. It includes letters, emails, memos, reports etc. Here, there is less room for error because we can take the time to censor, shape and weed out the mistakes from our words. The second type is the words we speak. It includes conversation, speeches, sign language, live chat online etc. As speaking happens in real-time, there is great room for error if we are not alert. It is the words we speak that interests me because of the mistakes we can make. I shall now address this issue with a quote below.

The Nature of the 4-Inch Wild Beast

Reserve is proof of prudence. The tongue is a wild beast – once let loose it is difficult to chain. It is the pulse of the soul by which wise men judge its health. By this pulse a careful observer feels every movement of the heart. The worst is that he who should be most reserved is the least. The sage saves himself from worries and embarrassments, and shows his mastery over himself. He goes his way carefully, a Janus of impartiality, an Argus of watchfulness. Certainly Momus would have better placed the eyes in the hand than the windows in the breast.
–Balthasar Gracian, the Art of Worldly Wisdom

Losing Control of the 4-Inch Wild Beast

Many things can cause us to lose control of our tongues. The main culprits are as follows:

-Need for Approval
-Lack of Awareness

Whatever the cause, the moment we lose control, we tend to say things that we regret. Often our words reveal our natures, fears and insecurities to others. It shows the world our obsessions and the way our minds work. As if that were not enough, our thoughtless words can also cause hurt, worry, embarrassment and needless problems. All these things could well lead to a breakdown in communication when it comes to any form of relationship. In fact, the more influence we have, the more damage our words can do to others and ourselves. An example would be the damage that political leaders can cause with their thoughtless words and actions.

Argument by Kd5ytx

Mastering the 4-Inch Wild Beast

Given the potential damage our words can cause, it pays to master them as best as we can. By doing so, we will save others and ourselves a lot of trouble. At the same time, our relationships will improve because we will cause less hurt with our tactlessness. But how should we go about doing this? I believe there are five things we can do to achieve this goal.

1. Be Aware and Watchful

Often we say the wrong things without thinking it through or realizing its impact. The less aware we are, the more likely we are to say things we regret. By then it is too late, as we have already caused the damage with our words. Thus, the first step to taming our tongue is awareness. Only if we are aware and watchful of our words can we hope to tame this wild beast.

2. The Purpose and Listening

What are you trying to achieve when you speak? Are you trying to make a point? Are you trying to influence someone else? Is everything that you say necessary? If not, what can you leave out? Will what you say help you to achieve your goal or purpose? These are some of the questions to bear in mind when you speak. And to answer these questions, you have to listen well to gauge the feedback and response to know what to include and what to omit.

If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up nowhere. If you don’t know the purpose of your words, you are likelier to say the wrong thing. The danger is not in saying too little, you could always add more information as needed. The danger lies in saying too much. Once the words have left your lips, you cannot take them back. This is especially so if you say something that is best left unsaid. Bearing these simple questions in mind will help to reduce possible errors in your speech.

3. Consider the Consequences

Everything we communicate has consequences that can affect three groups. The first group relates to you as a person. What you say, how you say it and what you do will affect how other people view you. This can help or hinder you and your plans.

The second group your words affect is your listeners. Your message, how you deliver it and the effect it has are all vital considerations. The graver the matters at hand, the greater the consequences your words have.

The last group your words affect is the people whom you speak of, this is especially so if they are not present. The most prudent thing to do is to say what you would say in their presence after thinking it through. Our world has become a much smaller place due to our interconnectedness. Since the words you speak are likely to get around, we should expect them to reach their ears.

4. Be Careful with the Delivery

It is not just what you say but how you say it that matters. When you deliver advice in a tactless manner, people are less likely to listen. It does not matter how prudent your advice may be, people will not heed it. But if you speak harsh truths with care and tact, you will find a more receptive audience. Take care to appeal to the interests of others and it becomes easier for them to listen to your words.

Some may feel that there is no need to frame our words nicely. After all, the truth should speak for itself. Unfortunately, this is not so, especially when much is at stake. Under such circumstances, our aim is to influence. Take the giving of advice for example. If no one listens to you, you are better off not speaking in the first place. But if it is important, we have to get our message across. In such cases, it is better to keep the big picture in mind and tailor our words so that our message makes it past the filters of others. There is no point in creating resistance to our words because of tactlessness.

5. Flow with the Situation

The steps above are merely guidelines, not rules. Not all conversations demand the same degree of self-control. For serious matters, it does pay to think before we speak. But for casual conversations, all we need to do is to apply the guidelines in a very general manner. The only things to remember are the following questions, “Will I regret what I say?” and “Is it really necessary?” Bearing these questions in mind before we speak should keep us free of most errors.

Listen by Chris O’Neill

Taking Action

Do you have problems controlling what you say? What do you do to make sure you do not say the wrong thing? Do share your thoughts and comments below. :)

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  28 Responses to “Taming the 4 Inch Wild Beast”

  1. Hi Irving,
    Great article! I don’t really have trouble curbing my tounge, but I sure know people who do. I think I’ll pass this on to them:) Take care!
    Dandy recently posted..Cognitive Distortions- Win against itMy Profile

    • Hi Dandy,

      It is great to know that you have control over your tongue. That would indeed save you a lot of problems. :)

      Thank you for passing this article on to those who need it! :)

  2. I have got another bullet point to add: Watch your intentions!
    Do you really want to connect with this person in a loving way? Maybe you associate some negative emotions with this person and now they just want to find their way out!
    The more loving you are, the less you have to care for the words you say: Because they will come out more and more loving, too.
    alice hive recently posted..So- who is this blogger and how is she qualified to talk about personal developmentMy Profile

    • Hi Alice,

      Watching your intentions is a great point!

      Indeed if we approach someone with love, our words will come out loving and we can control our tongue without controlling it. Haha, you sure know how to make align your intentions with the Tao! ;)

      Thank you for your lovely comments! :)

  3. Irving,

    This is very useful advice for about 99.9% of us. Words can do so much damage. Once trust is lost – due to thoughtless speech – it is very difficult to regain. I have often been overly direct in ways less than pleasing. I also take note of #4 about delivery because I know I can easily express impatience and frustration in my delivery. I try to be far more sensitive now because I have learned the hard way!

    I’m so glad you are addressing this topic, because it’s very challenging to change our speech habits! We need all the help we can get! One solution is to speak less or to even go on a speaking fast for awhile.
    Sandra Lee recently posted..Sensing Personal Connection- Kitten StyleMy Profile

    • Hi Sandra,

      Like you I can be brutally honest at times when I shouldn’t and less than tactful in my delivery. It is true that controlling our tongues is not easy at all. I too have learned many hard lessons with my thoughtless words.

      I love your solution to speak less. But here we must be careful. I have found that when I do not speak for a prolonged period of time, I have a tendency to rattle off uncontrollably and say the wrong things. Again, it is a matter of balance.

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! :)

  4. Irving,

    Man, oh man have I been there! I like to think of myself as pretty diplomatic when it comes to dealing with people who disagree with me. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but when I’ve been backed into a corner, I’ve been pretty unproud of myself for.

    I read that one of the things that made Abraham Lincoln such a great leader was that – when someone would say something or do something wrong to him, he would write letters to them telling them exactly what he thought. He would write every frustration, every fear, and every misunderstanding. Then, he would put them in a file in his desk. 60 days later, he would go back through the file. If he still felt that way, he would send it, and if he didn’t, he’d burn it. In his years in Congress and in the Presidency, he sent less than 6 letters. Maybe there’s something to that.
    Bryan Thompson recently posted..What The Social Network Can Teach You about Snowball Effects and Why You Need ThemMy Profile

    • Hi Bryan,

      I think we would all do well to take a leaf from Abraham Lincoln’s book. Not everyone could exercise the self-control he did and he clearly knew how to manage his emotions by writing them out.

      Thank you for sharing that great story! :)

  5. Hi Irving! Beautiful post on a topic that we don’t often pay attention to. We tend to say way more than we need to.I’ve tried this exercise of being silent and only speaking unless it’s really necessary. It’s a great exercise to bring awareness to the fact that most of what I was inclined to say is totally unnecessary. :) Once words are said, we can’t take them back. With that in mind, it would be very useful to practice more loving kindness in our speech.
    Thanks for this beautiful reminder. Loving blessings!
    Andrea DeBell – britetalk recently posted..3 Essential Ways to Positively Change your FutureMy Profile

    • Hi Andrea,

      I agree with you fully. Once words are said, we can’t take them back. The damage has been done. I used to speak only when it is necessary, but people have pointed out I was too quiet. Nowadays I try to find the balance between speaking and not speaking. It also depends a lot on the company. But as long as I try to approach conversations from a loving perspective, it usually works out fine.

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  6. Hi Irving, great website you have, I like its almost ‘classical’ look, definitely different from other places.

    I have a lot more control over my tongue than I did before. I’ve had to rein it, by speaking only when necessary. Took time, but I’m proud of my efforts :-)

    • Hi Stuart,

      I am glad you like Han of Harmony.

      Learning to master our tongue and what we say is not easy. The fact that you managed to do so shows that you have come a long way. It is definitely worth the effort considering what such control will do for your relationships.

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  7. Hi Irving,

    I like how you call the tongue a wild beast that needs to be tamed – it’s an interesting metaphor.

    Both the things that we say and the way that we say them really define who we are to other people. We can choose whether we build folk up or knock them down. If we use our words to criticise, insult or belittle, we get a reputation for being negative. Someone to be avoided.

    Alternatively, if we allow our words to compliment, be supportive and to be positive, we become known as an encourager. People flock around this kind of influence.

    As you suggest, we need to engage our brain before speaking out. Just taking an extra second or two to judge how our words might be received lets us filter what we say. It’s always possible to say things in an upbeat and constructive way – if we choose our words carefully.

    Stop and think before you speak seems to be a worthwhile skill to have ;-)
    Scott McIntyre | Vivid Ways recently posted..If Tomorrow Got Cancelled- What Would You Go Do TodayMy Profile

    • Hi Scott,

      I have Balthasar Gracian to thank for that metaphor. :)

      I agree with you, what we say and how we say it can affect the way people view us. We can come across as toxic or good company. Just by taking that little extra effort, we can easily find a way to say things in a way that is much easier to absorb. Don’t leave home without this skill! ;)

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  8. Great post. the tongue is the creator of wealth and the bringer of death. We choose which one we bring about..
    jonathanfigaro recently posted..Another Guest PostMy Profile

    • Hi Jonathan,

      Nice choice of words haha! It is true, if we choose our words carefully, we can bring great fortune to ourselves. But if we are not careful, we will cause a lot of needless problems.

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  9. I have problems controlling what I say when I get too stressed out to care. Now, I’m not just talking, “I haven’t slept well for a couple days and there’s a lot to do at work,” kind of stress. I’m talking the major about-to-land-in-the-hospital stress, and at that point just trying to stop some of the insanity is more important to me than controlling what I say. In fact, it may be the only time in my life that I actually say what I’m thinking, rather than holding a lot back.

    It’s lost me a few jobs, yes, but in the long run the jobs were major contributors to the stress, too, so maybe it wasn’t so bad I lost them.

    Delena Silverfox@Coupon Codes recently posted..IX Web Hosting Promo CodeMy Profile

    • Hi Delena,

      In your case, it was the stress that you had to manage well. Since the jobs were causing you such amounts of stress, it was better that you moved on to something better.

      In any case, it is not always a good idea to hold a lot back. That can have a pressure cooker effect which could cause a blowup one day. Better to let some of the things out from time to time to regulate the pressure.

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  10. Irving,
    This was wonderful! We have to learn to be so aware of what comes out of our mouths. It’s part of increasing our conscious awareness and comes with maturity and wisdom (hopefully with age too!). When we thing before we speak we can use our words much more powerfully than when we react and blurt things out in anger. Thank you for all the great tips and the reminder!
    Angela Artemis recently posted..25 Ways to Jack-Up Your Success Using IntuitionMy Profile

    • Hi Angela,

      I am glad you enjoyed my article! :)

      If everyone took the trouble to think things through before they spoke, the world would be a much better place.

      Although it would be nice if it were the case, maturity and wisdom does not necessarily come with age. It saddens me to see people well into their 50s and 60s who have not found inner peace in their lives.

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  11. I probably have got the shiest of this type of beast. It just loves to stay in its den and don’t take time to mingle with others. But when this beast is provoked, one will be in for a big surprised! But after spitting a fire, it will regret what it just did. That’s why the owner prefers it to be kept in its den.
    Anne Sales recently posted..Barrons Discount OfferMy Profile

    • Hi Anne,

      I’m glad that you keep your beast in its den as and when you can. Seeing its fire spitting ability, I won’t want to get on your bad side haha!

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  12. Hi Irving, very sound advice, my friend. But you know the Beast can be trained – to say sorry and to give thanks. That should settle it for a while but like all wild animals you never know when it may turn on the unsuspecting soul. cheers, Stephen
    Stephen recently posted..The Silent GameMy Profile

    • Hi Stephen,

      I love how you carried on my point about the tongue being like wild animals that can turn on unsuspecting souls anytime. Having said that, I agree with you, the Beast can be trained to say sorry and give thanks. But hopefully, it does not have to say sorry for something awful it did. Better to prevent the awful thing in the first place.

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comments! :)

  13. Hi Irving, I have had a lot of problems taming my beast in the past. I’ve learned to avoid alcohol if it’s important not to say something embarrassing.

    I’ve also learned to speak more slowly and think about what I say and what I’m trying to accomplish. This was extremely important when I was a therapist, because saying the wrong thing in the wrong way could be devastating to the relationship as well as the client’s mental health. If I focus on listening rather than making some points, I find there is less chance for misunderstanding.

    Lately, the most likely reason the beast gets out is anger. It’s usually best for me to cool off before speaking.
    Jennifer Barry recently posted..8 Life Lessons from Ruby- Age 94My Profile

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Alcohol really loosens our tongues at the worst possible times. Avoiding it when there is much at stake is prudent.

      I can see how you had to be really careful as a therapist especially when your client was dependent on what you said. Being aware of the consequences of the wrong words does help to keep our tongues in check. And you are right. When we focus on listening, we are less likely to say the wrong thing.

      It may help to manage your anger by perceiving things from a different angle or being aware of it before it is too late. It is when our anger catches us unawares that we say the wrong thing.

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  14. [...] on to other forms of self improvement, Irving has some tips to tame your tongue so you don’t say things you will regret. While this will vastly improve your relationship [...]

  15. [...] and I both have quick tempers and strong opinions. Sometimes we’ve said things that are better left unsaid. We’ve both gotten a lot better at not saying the first thing that comes to [...]

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