- Michael Thompson
“Think before you speak,” I told my 6-year-old son, Liam, earlier this week. I immediately regretted saying it as it’s often a generic phrase that parents give their kids when they say something rude, and I know I didn’t like hearing it when I was young. Regardless, I’m glad I said it because instead of nodding his head and scurrying away to play, Liam stopped and asked me an interesting question: “What should I be thinking about before I speak?”
At the time, his question caught me off guard, and I told him he should always ask himself if what he’s about to say is true, kind, or useful. But his question got me thinking if there’s more to the answer. As adults, so many of us run our mouths aimlessly, which can lead to stress and anxiety for ourselves and everyone around us. What should we be thinking about before we speak in order to make our time with others productive and meaningful?
Over the last week, I’ve been trying to better answer Liam’s question by collecting questions smart people ask themselves before they speak. Here are five we can all use.
Does this need to be said by me right now?
Some arguments are necessary to have in the moment, but a lot aren’t — and the angrier or more stressed we become, the more our communication skills worsen. When feeling pressed or your emotions are running high, author James Clear recommends pausing and then asking yourself if what you want to say needs to be said by you right now. Our instinctive response will rarely be our best response. Embracing the phrase “Can we talk about this when I’m thinking more clearly?” saves so much time and energy.
Is what I’m going to say actionable for the person on the receiving end?
As a startup founder and mentor at various organizations, Marina Glazman is often sought after for her advice and feedback. She told me that in giving advice, she always asks herself whether the words she’s about to share are actionable or not.
“Trust is built by taking the time to help identify the next right step the person in front of you can take,” Glazman explained. If you don’t have an answer, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with telling someone you need some space so you can give them a more thoughtful reply.
What pressures are they under that I don’t know about?
I asked Denise Smith Young, the former chief of human resources at Apple, how she approaches difficult conversations with co-workers in an empathetic manner. She offered me a string of questions that all hit on the same theme: taking a step back to think about the pressures other people may be under.
We all have things going on in our personal and professional lives that aren’t always obvious to others. Young explained that when it comes to communication, we must always assume there’s more to understand than what’s being said. Maybe the missed deadline isn’t due to incompetence — maybe their childcare collapsed during the pandemic and they’re five times busier than they used to be. Ask yourself what you are missing and if there could be something deeper going on that you don’t know about.
Am I adding to the panic or stress of this person, or am I being a calming influence?
When the pandemic first began, author Elizabeth Gilbert shared on Instagram about how she was desperate to get a flight from Australia back to the U.S. Initially, she typed a string of frantic messages to her friends and family — “I gotta grab the last flight outta here while I can before there’s total pandemonium and chaos!” But she realized this wasn’t the way she wanted to be speaking. So she deleted the messages and wrote the following calm words instead: “Hey, I got a flight and I’m coming home early.”
The next time you feel stressed about something, consider if you’re using “drama language” or not. As Gilbert demonstrated, we all have the choice to add panic to a situation or to be a calming influence.
What else could I learn if I just keep listening?
This question comes from my friend and writer, Niklas Göke. Life isn’t Jeopardy — you don’t have to jump in with an answer the first chance you get. Think about what you could learn if you simply paused and kept listening. When it comes to making our relationships tight, giving people space to express themselves so we can learn more about what they are thinking and feeling is always a solid strategy.
We’re bombarded with chatter. We talk because we’re afraid of silence. But I’m thankful that this week, my 6-year-old son Liam reminded me that few qualities are more valuable than learning how to properly think before we speak.