Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States (1801-1809), often took the opportunity to advise his children, grandchildren, and others on matters of personal conduct. Over the years he developed a list of axioms for personal behavior. Some seem to have been of his own invention; others derived from classical or literary sources. Jefferson’s most extensive list is the one he sent to Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, his granddaughter, while she was visiting her older sister and brother-in-law. One of those rules reads as follows: “When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.”1
Today we would interpret what Jefferson this way: Think before you speak! Psychologists have suggested several rules to follow on how to make sure you say what you ought to say and not be sorry later. This is especially true when responding to someone or some situation that has upset us and caused our hot righteous indignation to rise to the surface.
One of the first things to do is recognize how you got yourself into this situation. Think! Is what you are going to blurt out by virtue of your feeling indignant in response to what this person or persons have said? Is your response to what struck a bad cord on your emotional heartstrings the thing you really want to say? Also, does this happen mostly with one particular person or a particular group of people or just groups in general?
People are often put on the spot to make a comment to offer a defense of some principle because they are either asked to say something or they feel pressured to give their opinion. These are often spontaneous occurrences that find us unprepared. However, we can prepare ourselves ahead of time by practicing what we would say when challenged to do so.
Another thing to keep in mind is this: quickly appraise your situation on how the discussion or debate began. If you know ahead of time that such gatherings often produce this unwanted effect, try to be very observant so that you are warned when conditions begin manifesting themselves that this is about to happen. The more skilled you become in recognizing this, the better you will be at controlling your approach. This applies especially to whether or not the group involved represent a family circle, a social group, a religious community, or a work-related unit.
Once you get involved in the conversation, keep your mind open to anything you hear that might tell you that one of “those” situations seems to be developing. This will alert you to process very carefully what is being said, the tone, and at what emotional level. Often when we respond in a less than appropriate way, it’s because we didn’t fully comprehend what was being said. As soon as we realize this, it is best to ask the individual to repeat what they said because you don’t feel that you really understood. Don’t start focusing on what you’re going to say; just absorb what they are saying. Your mind will process this information in the background.
It also helps to observe those involved. Who is speaking and how do they communicate? Some people are very literal and some people use examples. Some people use a lot of facial expressions and body language to augment their conversation, whereas others rely on complex verbiage. How people convey information is a very good indicator of how they best absorb information. This should help you from saying something superficial they make them feel it is beneath them, or something intended to make them look uninformed.
To go along with this, consider your options on how you might respond. You should always have more than one. There are many different ways to say things. and your goal here is to find the best way to convey what you want to say in a way that has a positive impact. Communication is primarily a function of the recipient, so you have to communicate based on what you know about the listener and why they are so emotionally involved.
It has also been suggested that you consider the information being given to you before you respond. Ask yourself, is what you’re about to say Accurate, Necessary, Timely, Appropriate, and Effective (ANTAE)? If you are just responding because other people are talking, then it’s possible your communication doesn’t fit the ANTAE model. If not, then sit back and continue to listen. You want what you say to have a positive impact, not just to make noise.
As you listen, take the time to gauge the possible reaction of what you plan to say. Is the information you’re going to present formulated in a way to make a constructive impact? Creating a negative atmosphere will guarantee failure in communications. You want people to understand that you are contributing rather than adding confusion. Your initial response can either attribute to or ruin your reputation for communicating in such situations.
Make sure that you are thoughtful about your tone: How you say it is, in many ways, as important as what you say. Your tone of voice can convey enthusiasm and sincerity, or it can rebuff and show sarcasm, and as most people have experienced, what we say can be taken in the wrong way. The most likely reason is that the tone of voice, what was said, body and facial language, as well as content. Did we thoughtfully consider how to integrate our response with the listener’s most effective method of receiving communication?
The whole purpose for saying anything under these circumstances is to communicate not complicate. You now know what you’ll say – it’s ANTAE! How you’ll say it will influence the most likely reaction. Wait for an appropriate break in the conversation to speak. It’s usually best not to interrupt, although there are occasions when that will work best. When to interrupt is something that you look for, not plan for.
And one more thing, stay focused. While you’re talking, consider what you’re saying and keep a close watch on the reactions as they emerge. After the conversation is over, review the whole process again in your mind and note what you might have done differently and why. This is an ongoing process. Over time, you will refine and improve – you will become a better communicator and people will accept your responses with a more open mind.
The Holy Scriptures has quite a few things to say about this process of saying what is right at the right time and not blurting out what is wrong at the wrong time. The wise King Solomon made it clear that even a very uninformed individual can come across as being very informed by keeping their mouth shut when they really don’t have anything to contribute to a discussion or debate.2 And later on, he adds that only a fool would blurt out something just for the sake of saying what they’re thinking and not what will help the situation.3 King Solomon goes on to recommend that everyone keep a lock on their mouths because a loose tongue can get a person into real trouble.4 He then goes on to say that when someone is quick to say something without thinking, they may end up looking even dumber than a fool.5
The Apostle Paul must have been addressing this same problem among the believers in the city of Philippi because he tells them that before they say something they should be thinking about how it is going to affect others instead of themselves. It’s okay to find out why people are doing or saying what they are, but don’t give your opinion just as a form of criticism just because you didn’t like the way they said what they did.6
And the Apostle James must have been confronted with a similar dilemma among his constituents because he does not hesitate to tell them to do more listening than talking. That way they can better control their anger.7 In other words, what good does it do to insist on getting a word in if it only ends up dividing rather than bringing together? Remember, if you speak before you’ve really thought about what you’re going to say, then you will have created another problem that must be taken care of. I’m sure most of us have heard our parents or teachers tell us what has become a common word-to-the-wise: Make sure your brain is engaged before you put your mouth in gear. – Robert R Seyda
1 Jefferson’s Ten Rules, #10
2 Proverbs 17:28
3 Ibid. 18:2
4 Ibid. 21:23
5 Ibid. 29:20
6 Philippians 2:4