We’ve all been there.
That moment when you speak too quickly without thinking first.
The words that spill out of your mouth cause you instant regret.
If you had just held your tongue for a moment, you could have prevented the cringe-worthy situation from occurring.
You wouldn’t have to experience the repercussions of offending, wounding, or embarrassing someone else.
Maybe you thought you were being clever or funny with your remark.
Maybe you were angry and in the moment felt justified with your remarks. Maybe you didn’t know how the people around you would interpret your words.
Words have incredible power for good or ill. If spoken without consideration, you can do serious damage to yourself and others.
Do you pause to think before you speak to consider your words?
Often, we just say what is on our minds as soon as the thought enters our heads.
But taking just a few seconds before you speak to assess your thoughts, your mood, and your audience can go a long way in improving your relationships — as well as your own personal growth.
As Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
It is not only the actual words we speak that count, but also you must consider your tone of voice, inflection, and even your body language.
Together all of these send a clear message to your listener about your intended meaning, even if the words themselves appear benign.
- How to think before you speak: Seven keys to improving your speaking:
- 1. Pause to see if you really have something to say.
- 2. Before you speak consider your audience.
- 3. Consider your purpose before you speak.
- 4. Make sure you’re being specific in what you say.
- 5. Consider the words you choose.
- 6. Don’t make assumptions.
- 7. Be aware of your body language and tone of voice.
- Bonus: How to Be a Quick Thinker
Now let’s go over some general strategies to help you slow down, check your emotions, and say what you really want to say in all situations.
How to think before you speak: Seven keys to improving your speaking:
1. Pause to see if you really have something to say.
Children are often told that if they don’t have anything nice to say, they shouldn’t say anything at all.
While this admonition mainly pertains to gossip and negativity, you can take it a step further. Remind yourself to not say anything if you don’t have anything valuable to say. This is an important element of good conversation and social skills.
People often speak to fill an uncomfortable silence, or because it seems better to say something than to remain quiet. A gap of silence in the presence of others even causes anxiety for some. Silence is not always a bad thing. It gives the speak and the listener the chance to process and consider what has been said.
When someone else is talking, just be present and listen. Try not to think ahead to what you want to say in return.
Just hear what the person is saying, and then stop to think and respond if you have something to say.
2. Before you speak consider your audience.
Are you about to lose your cool in front of your boss? Is that hysterical off-color joke something you really want to share in front of your mother-in-law? Do you really want to offer your political opinion at the family birthday dinner?
All of your thoughts and feelings aren’t appropriate for all people. Think carefully before you speak how your words will impact those around you — and how their response to your words might impact you.
Let’s say you’re in a group of friends with one or two new people you don’t know well. You may be tempted to use inside jokes or make sarcastic comments that your friends “get.”
But you only have one chance to make a good first impression on the new people in the group. Speak with those people in mind first, and make sure your comments are appropriate for everyone.
If you need to offer effective feedback to someone, especially if it is negative feedback, it should be done in private. Think about who is around to hear what you are saying and if there’s a possibility you could embarrass the person to whom you are speaking.
3. Consider your purpose before you speak.
Before you speak, make sure that you have a clear purpose behind what you are saying.
Are you trying to build rapport? Share your ideas? Clarify something?
Make sure that your purpose is in line with what you are saying by measuring your words, monitoring your mood, and considering your tone of voice.
This is particularly important if you have strong feelings of anger, frustration, or hurt related to the conversation topic. If your intention is resolution or to make a clear statement about your point of view, you will miss the mark if your emotions sabotage your language.
The total package of your communication should align with your purpose — from your body posture to your choice of words. It takes a certain amount of self-regulation and practice to do this effectively, but it’s well worth the effort.
4. Make sure you’re being specific in what you say.
When you don’t provide a point of reference for your listener, you are likely to miscommunicate.
Rather than referring to specific things without naming them, be as specific as possible. For example, if you ask, “Are you sure you want to do that?” then your listener doesn’t know what the “that” is you are asking for — or why you’re asking if he or she is sure.
When you aren’t specific and clear in your language, it leaves the listener with the job of filling in the gaps with what they assume you’re talking about.
Their assumptions may be completely different from what you actually intended.
This kind of communication can be very frustrating for the listener and lead to a lack of understanding and possibly even conflict. Before you say anything, make sure to label people, objects, and places and clarify meaning so that any listeners are able to understand what you are talking about.
You can also be more specific by giving examples, painting a clear picture with your words, and giving clear and precise directives if you need the listener to act.
5. Consider the words you choose.
Our use of language provides an insight into our education, where we grew up, and our thoughts and feelings.
Are you speaking with someone who has a very different background than you do? Perhaps you need to alter your choice of words so your listener is able to feel more comfortable in the conversation.
Slang, curse words, and even humorous remarks can be off-putting or offensive to some people. If the conversation is tense, be careful about using criticism, passive-aggressive remarks, or subtle jabs.
If you know the listener well (they are a spouse, close friend, or family member), you likely know words that will trigger them negatively.
Be careful to avoid trigger words by thinking in advance of the things you have said in the past that have caused pain or anger for the person.
6. Don’t make assumptions.
Sometimes we create scenarios in our heads that can cause us to speak in a way that doesn’t reflect the real situation.
For example, perhaps you haven’t heard from a friend for a while, and you assume he is ignoring you. When you finally do speak to this friend, thinking he’s been pushing you aside, you might have a bit of an attitude or reveal your hurt feelings.
Making an assumption like this can be harmful. Perhaps your friend has a legitimate reason for being out of touch. When you assume without clarifying, you risk harming the relationship.
Sometimes we make assumptions about people based on how they look, what they do, or what others have said about them. Try not to allow your assumptions to slip into your conversation.
Appearances are deceptive, and there’s often much more to a person than meets the eye. You could miss a great connection by verbally pushing them away.
It is best to not assume anything before you speak because there is a good chance your assumptions are wrong and your words may cause more hurt than good.
7. Be aware of your body language and tone of voice.
Remember, communication is more than just words. How you hold your body, whether or not you appear distracted, the tone of voice you use — these all contribute to the message you are communicating.
If you’re unsure of your audience, or you have strong emotions going into the conversation, try to use open or neutral body language and tone of voice.
When you want to establish a connection with someone, don’t cross your arms or keep your head down. Use appropriate eye contact, smile, and try to put the other person at ease with both your words and mannerisms.
It doesn’t take long to pause and consider how you want to present yourself before communicating with another person. Just a few seconds it takes can make the difference in having a positive interaction or one you may regret.
As you develop the habit of thinking before you speak, it will become more and more automatic, putting control of how you want others to perceive you back in your own hands.
Bonus: How to Be a Quick Thinker
Whether you’re in a work setting or in a personal encounter, thinking before you speak requires the ability to think on your feet — if you don’t want to put one of those feet in your mouth.
Quick thinking is required in professional situations when you’re asked a question you aren’t prepared for, or you’re called on to speak about a topic without prior notice. You need to come up with an intelligent response on the spur of the moment.
These situations can leave you floundering as your mind goes blank, and you stammer your way through what can become a nightmare moment.
In personal situations, you might be asked a too-personal question, you’re put on the spot in front of others, or you are being criticized or challenged.
Your better angels implore you to say something calm, clever, and kind rather than resorting to an emotional, knee-jerk response.
We can all learn to think better on our feet and manage our responses, and the key to this skill is preparation.
Think about situations in which you’ve been caught off guard, and you haven’t known what to say — or you’ve said something inappropriate, ill-conceived, or unkind.
- Write down responses that you would like to offer in these situations in the future.
- Come up with some positive remarks, stories, or even quotes that can add humor to the moment and deflect from the awkwardness.
- Or come up with questions to divert the conversation to the other person.
When you’re prepared for life’s uncomfortable situations, whether at work or in your personal life, you will have appropriate responses and comments handy at the moment you need them.
Even with preparation, you need to be a quick thinker to pull these responses from the recesses of your brain. When you’re in the middle of one of these awkward situations, your brain can freeze, or you can easily resort to an emotional response.
You can improve your quick-thinking skills so you’re better able to clear your mind and control your words. Here’s how:
Practice meditation. Meditation trains your mind to slow down and become less reactive in all situations. Just ten minutes a day can help you relieve stress and become calmer so you can think more clearly.
Reinforce self-confidence. When you lack confidence in yourself, an awkward moment is terrifying. Work on boosting your confidence so you can approach these situations from a position of power.
Minimize distractions. If you’re distracted when you need to be focused on the best response, you diminish your brain power. Stay focused and attentive during interactions so you aren’t caught off guard.
Practice quick thinking. But practice during non-confrontational or positive encounters. Use these easy situations to hone your skills of coming up with spur of the moment responses.
Stay well-informed. The more knowledge you have, the better able you are to come up with educated, confident responses in all situations. Stay well-informed in your profession, and learn more about emotionally intelligent communication skills.
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I hope you learned some useful information to help you prepare for thinking on your feet and considering what you say before you say it.
Good communication is the most essential quality in the health and success of all of your relationships. It’s a skill that everyone needs to know.
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