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:
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.
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.
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.