Chloe 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 what must have been the twentieth 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 said. "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."
Chloe'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 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. Before you open your mouth to speak, here are five questions to ask yourself:
Whom am I helping?
Too often we let our emotions take over, and we speak out of anger or frustration. When my friend Connie suddenly grew distant after years of a close friendship, I tried to get her to open up. After several failed attempts, I became frustrated. 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. I'm not sure why, but 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 said. "I've been under a lot of pressure lately at the office, but I think things are finally getting back to normal."
Connie had needed her friends to be patient with her. If I would have sent that letter to her and told her how upset I was with her, it would have only added pressure to her already-stressful situation and may have permanently 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 perhaps 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? Will what I'm planning to say improve a particular situation or help the person I am speaking to? 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.
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 them what they thought 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. It won't be the end of the world if others don't get to hear your views of a particular situation.
I knew someone once who seemed to enjoy being a contrarian. If he was with a group of people at the office or church and everyone was commenting about how they liked a particular movie or restaurant, he would jump right in and tell everyone else how they were wrong in their assessment. His comments always dampened the mood of the group.
Sometimes it's better to keep your contrary opinions to yourself, especially when they have nothing to do with a life-and-death matter. 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? Offer to give another perspective that might help, another viewpoint that could balance out the picture.
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 once had an office coworker who thrived on telling me what she heard somebody else say about me. She would say such things as: "Marie says you joke around too much at work." "Colleen thinks you wear the wrong clothing styles." "Bob thinks you and your husband are a bad match."
The only effect those observations had on me was to make me feel bad. So I've made it a personal rule that if someone tells me about a gripe they have with one of my friends, I don't repeat it. If what the person is saying could contain some truth, I urge them to tell my friend directly. If the complaint is just a different opinion or a reflection of insensitivity or lack of knowledge about the person or situation, my friend doesn't need to hear it.
Am I speaking the truth in love?
You may think another person needs to hear what you have to say, but just blasting them with criticism won't get your message across. I once had an acquaintance who had no problem with "putting people in their place," and she would always add that "it's for their own good."
She would justify the way she boldly confronted other people by quoting Matthew 18:15 and priding herself on being the only one willing to stand up to the person and "go to her brother." Yet the way she approached people was often unnecessarily abrupt, bold, harsh, and judgmental. I often wondered if she was really concerned about the other person or just wanted to blow off some steam.
This is often an issue that comes up between husbands and wives. 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. Criticism must be combined with genuine concern to be effective. We have to learn to speak the truth in love.
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 them what you'd do if you were facing such a situation or what you think they did to cause the problem. In most cases, though, the best thing you can do to help a hurting friend is to just keep silent and listen. This allows sufferers to work out their own solution by talking through the problem.
Watch your timing. Three hours after your husband is involved in a serious automobile 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 she did to wreck her marriage. If your child tells you she didn't get invited to a classmate's party, that's not the time to tell her she's not friendly enough.
Keep quiet and let the hurting person do the talking. They are dealing with enough just having to endure the pain of the situation. Don't make them have to endure more by hearing correction or criticism from you. Give them time to recover from the hurt and to get their emotions back to normal before you share your perspectives about what happened in their life.
Take time to think about the probable effects of your words before you open your mouth to speak. If I had asked myself these five questions, I would have suffered only sore feet that day with Chloe. Instead, I let my words scar the friendship. Make it a goal to use your words to improve situations and relationships. When your words would do only harm, keep quiet.
Rebecca Sweat is a freelance writer based in the Dallas area specializing in family and women's topics. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Christian Parenting Today, Virtue, and Parenting.