When I was growing up in Texas, my mother would recycle the feathers in our old bed pillows by putting them into new pillow covers. It was a pretty messy undertaking. No matter how careful she tried to be, some of the feathers would ultimately escape and end up in undesired places. It was impossible to retrieve them all.
Words are like that. No matter how hard we try, inevitably, words will escape from our lips which we wish we’d never released. Sometimes, they are spoken hastily in the heat of our emotions. Just like the time I reprimanded an incompetent new employee who had exaggerated his expertise.
“John,” I said, “Even a high school student could perform that task!”
I heard years later that my words had cut John to the core and that he was still feeling wounded by them.
The power of saying “no comment”
There are other times when hasty words are a response to an on-the-spot question that we feel we must weigh in on rather than simply saying, “no comment.”
Take the recent brouhaha over tennis star Serena Williams’ remarks surrounding the Steubenville rape case, and more recently, her alleged comments regarding fellow tennis star Maria Sharapova (which were never made explicitly public). When queried by the press about her Steubenville rape case comment, Williams replied in essence that the 16-year-old victim could have used more wisdom by avoiding the situation that led to her rape by two high school football players.
Some people felt that Serena minimized the seriousness of the crime. They expressed that they were “disappointed,” “appalled,” and downright upset by her comments. Even her subsequent Tweet clarifying her position did little to change some opinions.
Williams heals the controversy — with kind words
Serena has since apologized profusely for the incident, and told the Associated Press that she, the victim and the victim’s family have come “to a wonderful understanding,” adding that they are now “constantly in contact.”
Serena also said in the same story regarding Sharapova that she is sorry for any comments made about the player, only saying “I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it.”
As I watched these controversies from the sidelines, I marveled at how many ways negative words can be used — and how many negative ways people can interpret them. For example, words can be intentionally manipulative, divisive, argumentative, slandering, or belittling. They can also be experienced as cynical, harsh, intimidating, hasty or judgmental, to name a few, without the speaker’s intention.
How do we mitigate the communication issues that Williams faced and overcame with apologetic words?
Everyone makes communication mistakes
Let’s face it — we’re not always going to win in our communications. No matter how well-intentioned, careful, or humble we are, we will inevitably offend somebody. Because we can never be totally aware of all of the sensitivities of others, we can only do our best to speak with wisdom and pray that our words do not tap into people’s pain, distress, or other negative experiences.
I’m reminded of the sage — and much needed — advice one of my mentors gave me over thirty years ago: “Stop, think and pray before you speak.” Hmmm…ever wondered why God gave us two ears and one mouth? Could it be that we are to spend twice as much time listening than talking?
On the other side of the table, we can be intentional in guarding our own peace of mind by:
- Practicing not being so easily offended; letting it go by not sweating the small stuff
- Giving others the benefit of the doubt regarding their motives and intentions behind upsetting remarks
- Refusing to seethe in silence by calmly asking offenders to clarify what was said
Taking responsibility for our speech
We have to take full responsibility for our communication whether we are the speaker or the hearer. We must take time to weigh our words before releasing them, knowing that time and words are two things that, once gone, can never be recovered.
Deborah Smith Pegues is the bestselling author of ‘30 Days to Taming Your Tongue,’ ‘Confronting Without Offending’ and 12 other books. She is a Certified Behavior Consultant, Conflict Resolution Strategist and international speaker on relationships, finances, and spirituality. She has been happily married to her soul mate Darnell Pegues for over 34 years. You can find more information about Deborah at http://www.confrontingissues.com. You can follow her on Facebook at Deborah Smith Pegues or on Twitter @deborahpegues.