Tactfully Speaking: Taming the Tongue


“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”

James* reminds us that what comes out of our mouths makes a difference. In this final installment of the ‘Tactfully Speaking’ series, I’d like to share some my thoughts on how we might tame our tongue. Here they are:

  • Build the ‘5 Steps to a Meaningful Conversation‘ into your life.
    I’ve already discussed the process you might consider using when engaged in a conversation, with anyone, really. I would love to claim I do so all the time – I still have a ways to go myself – but I can say I’ve never regretted utilizing these simple steps when I remember to do so.
  • Be slow to speak.
    It is very hard to ‘dig a hole’ when you are conspicuously silent. That’s not to say our default should be silence. That can backfire too.  James* exhorts us to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Ambrose Bierce once said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” Suffice it to say, the best time to be silent is when you are angry and not thinking straight.
  • Avoid definitives whenever possible.
    “God never moves in our church.”, “The women’s ministry should have been shut down a year ago.”, “The music is going to drive people away.”  These are a few examples of definitive statements. Certainly it is OK to have opinions, even strong opinions. The problem is that we often communicate our opinions as irrefutable and conclusive facts. There really isn’t any place for your listeners to go with that. If they agree with you, then all is well. But if they don’t they may keep silent and secretly disagree or they might possibly get defensive and your conversation could quickly evolve into an unnecessary argument.

I recommend you get into the habit of prefacing your opinions with a simple disclaimer. Start with the words, “In my opinion…”, “It seems to me…” or “I’m thinking…”. Let’s look at the above examples again with a simple disclaimer like this: “It seems to me that God never moves in our church.”, “In my opinion, the women’s ministry should have been shut down a year ago.”, “I’m thinking the music is going to drive people away.”

  • Be careful talking about others when they aren’t present.
    I suspect every leader needs to occasionally hold discussions about others when they aren’t in the room. I’ve done it, and I’m sure you have as well. But I’d like to submit that, perhaps, we do it more often than is truly necessary, especially if what we have to say about the person isn’t positive. Those conversations should be well guarded and rare. Even the Scriptures lay out a very clear order when it comes to dealing with difficult situations with people*. First you go to the person, and THEN you talk about it with a trusted and mature leader. Even then, it doesn’t stay behind closed doors but eventually makes it’s way back to the person.
  • Add key phrases to your speech.
    There are a few words and phrases that consistently save face for me – especially during a confrontation or difficult conversation. By themselves they don’t seem very effective, but properly used they can be very powerful. I’ve already shared a few important phrases above in avoiding definitives. Here are a few more of my favorites: “I wonder if…”, “Is it possible…”, “I could be wrong, but…”, “Could it be that…”. Let’s look at some examples of how those phrases might be used: “I wonder if we should consider approaching this conversation differently.”, “Do you think it’s possible that you might be too emotionally involved to really make a good decision about this right now?”, “I could be wrong, but my sense is that they didn’t mean to come across that way when they said that.”
  • Increase the use of your vocabulary.
    This might seem like an odd suggestion. What does an increased use of vocabulary have to do with taming the tongue and speaking tactfully. Answer: a LOT. Understand, I’m not talking about opening the dictionary and discovering odd or long words that nobody knows about. No. That’s increasing your vocabulary (also a good idea). I’m talking about increasing the USE of your vocabulary. What I am recommending is that we begin to study how other great communicators say things and intentionally model and integrate them into our daily speech. I’m talking about learning how to phrase things so that our listeners feel understood, don’t get defensive so much, and want to hear more of what you have to say. How many times have you caught yourself saying or thinking, “It’s on the tip of my tongue, I just can’t seem to get it out.” 
What other ways might we tame our tongue? 
* The above Scripture references include: James 3:9-10, 2 Timothy 3:16, James 1:22, James 1:19; Matthew 18:15-17 & Matthew 5:23-24.

Image from Tap10 at istockphoto.com.

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