How to Work Out When to Say Something and When to be Quiet
‘Shut it’ or ‘shut up’ are phrases often used to get someone to stop talking, but they’re often considered rude or impolite. Using them is an abrupt way to interrupt and force someone to be quiet. Many people believe this type of speech is disrespectful. I happen to be in that camp too; mainly because it was drummed into me at an early age that ‘shut up’ wasn’t something that should come out of my mouth. So, I’m not advocating that we start using the phrase, but if someone says ‘shut up’ to us, we might need to examine what we’ve been saying and how we’ve been saying it.
I used to have a little bookmark which said ‘Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff and nudge me when I’ve said enough’. I felt like I really needed that reminder, and I repeated the prayer to myself often. I knew that I had a runaway mouth and needed to learn when to be quiet. If someone has had to tell you to be quiet, then chances are a nudge hasn’t been enough.
So how can you work out when you’re saying too much?
- Be aware when dialogue has switched to monologue.
- Are you doing all the talking?
- Are you on an old hobby horse whether it’s about politics, football or your latest hobby?
- Do the people listening have any input, questions, or involvement in the conversation?
- If someone looks bored
- If they start looking around the room rather than making eye contact
- If they try to change the subject
- If they keep looking at their watch
- If their body language becomes aggressive or defensive.
- Some people suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. The more they say the worse the situation seems to get. Are you one of those people?
- Do you find yourself explaining or defending why you said something? This may not be because you’re digging a hole for yourself but be aware if it is a frequent pattern of communication.
- If you start to feel embarrassed or see that those around you are embarrassed, then it’s probably time to be quiet.
Silence is Golden
One thing I remember about primary school is a phrase that my headmaster loved to remind us of, ‘silence is golden’. He would say it in a commanding way, but I’ve got to say that as a child, I had no idea what he meant. I knew he wanted us all to be quiet but had no idea why. As I grew, I learned that it meant that there are times when saying nothing is preferable to saying something. It’s not always wise to speak. It’s essential to realise though that we do need to be quiet whenever our words start to become damaging.
I love the imagery used in the Psalms, ‘Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.’ Psalm 141:3
This psalm was written by someone who knew his mouth could get him into a lot of trouble. Can you imagine how your words would change if there was a guard patrolling up and down to make sure that you didn’t say the wrong thing?
Probably the place I’m most unguarded about what I say is at home. I’m totally comfortable with my family, but that shouldn’t mean that I feel free to say things that are cruel or hurtful just because they pop into my mind. The ‘guard’ needs to remain on duty 24/7 in my case. That doesn’t mean I have to hide who I am or keep quiet about my opinions, but it does mean that I need to be thoughtful about how I share what’s going on in my head.
Are you like me and are less guarded about the words you use when you are at home? The wrong thing can easily pour out of your mouth when you are with your spouse or your family. You might have had a rough day at work and when you come home, the irritability that you managed to hold back all day spills out from unguarded lips.
So how can you put a patrol in place?
- Be more conscious of the effects of your words.
As children, we used to sing ‘sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will never harm us’. What a lie! Words can cause a lot of damage. It’s vital we acknowledge that, instead of trying to minimise the impact of what we have to say. That’s why it’s important to know when to hold back from saying what you really want to say and choosing when to say it. It is better to respond rather than react.
- Don’t make excuses.
Some people hide behind a phrase like, ‘I was only joking’ to cover up the damage their tongue has done. If you find that you have to say ‘I was only joking’ a lot, then it’s a sign that you have a mean mouth. I’ve heard people hurt others badly and hide behind their sense of humour. When that excuse isn’t taken well more accusations come like, ‘You don’t have a sense of humour’.
- Learn to apologise and apologise sincerely.
When you move from blame to accepting responsibility, you’ll find it easier to change your behaviour.
- Think before you speak.
Often we say things without engaging our brains, our mouths working all on their own! Unguarded, unchecked and unmuzzled.
Muzzle Your Mouth
In another Psalm (39:1), David uses similar imagery of appointing a guard or watchman to keep his tongue in check but also writes about guarding his mouth with a muzzle. I totally get that! Have you ever walked past an aggressive dog? They can be pretty scary and intimidating! We use a Halti to walk our dog, it isn’t a muzzle but it has a similar appearance. People have literally backed away from him because they mistakenly think he might bite.
As horrible as they look, muzzles have been designed to keep a hostile animal from hurting others, the muzzle stops them from resorting to their usual mode of operation. Even if they snarl a bit, they can’t do as much damage as they would want to. Often we don’t even realise the damage our tongues can do — people ‘bite’ too but by using their words. If we were able to capture a visual image of what our words do to others, I think we’d see our interactions change for the better. Can you imagine the difference this alone would make in your daily communication with your spouse or other members of your family?
If I think about the past week, there are words that I’ve regretted saying. Things I wish I hadn’t said. Even when we are conscious of the power of our words some words slip past the guard. We need to be proactive to stop that, we need to learn how to get control of our tongues. While we are able to focus on the ‘guards’ or ‘muzzles’ we can put on our tongue, maybe like David, we can adopt another approach too.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.
What strategies have you used to guard your mouth?
Is this an area you need to improve on?
We need to think about the right things. If we do, then what comes out of our mouths won’t be as ugly or dangerous.
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