How To Think Before You Speak

Have you ever said something you later regretted saying?

Of course you have.

Everybody has.

Have you ever had words spoken to you that you wished had not been said?

Of course you have.

Everybody has had this experience.

We have no control over what others say to us. But we have plenty of control over what we say to them.

Our words can build up or tear down. Our speech can encourage or deflate. What we say can heal or harm.

Is there some means by which we won’t end up regretting the words we speak? Some way we can improve what we say?

Fortunately, our speech can improve significantly by following one simple rule: think before you speak.

Which is easy to say. But how do we go about this in a practical way?

Well, if the goal is to think before you speak, I’d like to offer an acronym that should help you do just that.

In fact, it’s very close to the word “think.” It’s the word T-H-A-N-K-S.

We would all give thanks if words spoken to us were friendly and kind. Likewise, others will give thanks if our words are positive and beneficial.

So let’s take a look at the acronym T-H-A-N-K-S, and see how it can help us avoid saying something we will one day rue.

T = True

We begin with the word true. Is what you’re about to say true? If not, it’s better to remain silent.

How do you know it’s true?

If you’re merely quoting what you heard, it’s simple. “John told me he will be in late tomorrow.”

You’re not predicting John’s arrival time. You aren’t saying that John will be late or not. You’re simply reporting that John said he will be in late tomorrow.

So what you’re saying is true.

But it’s usually more complicated than this. When we make a statement claiming to know something is true, we should be sure that it is.

What’s the source of the information? Is the source reliable? Are we sure we heard correctly? Is this merely our opinion we’re passing off as true? (hint: a bit of critical thinking helps in these instances)

If we’re saying something about another person, it’s even more important to be accurate and truthful. Gossip and rumors thrive on inaccurate information or statements that are just not true.

Don’t be a purveyor of untruth. Be sure what you say is accurate. Be sure that it’s true.

So if you don’t know, find out. If you aren’t sure, double check. If you know it’s not true, don’t say it.

H = Helpful

Speaking what is true is not enough. We also want to speak what is helpful.

We want things to be better because of what we said. We want to speak words that help rather than hinder.

There are innumerable ways we can speak words that are helpful.

Of course, sometimes our conversation revolves around friendly exchanges that are little more than catching up. Mutually sharing information that lets people know how we’re doing or what we’re planning.

But even in such conversations, our words should help in some way. If nothing more than to assure the other person that they’re safe with us and they can be themselves around us.

A = Affirming

Though our conversations should not aim to be a mutual self-aggrandizing session, our words should nonetheless affirm those we’re speaking to.

By affirming I don’t mean paying compliments. Though compliments do affirm. I’m not talking about interpersonal pep talks. Though sometimes we need one and others need them.

What I’m talking about is speaking with other people in such a way that you affirm them as a human being worthy of respect.

You speak to them like they matter. Not just to you, but to the human race.

How do you do this? Several ways.

  • Make eye contact
  • Repeat their own words
  • Speak politely
  • Speak respectfully
  • Treat what they say seriously
  • Speak to them like you care about them as a person

We all want to feel affirmed. All of us want to believe and feel that we matter in some way.

Whoever you happen to be speaking to will want to be affirmed just like you will. So affirm them through the words you speak.

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N = Necessary

This is probably the most difficult one of the 6 to navigate. When is something necessary to say? When is it merely helpful? When is it harmful?

Some cases are clear…

If someone is preparing to drive home when they’ve had too much to drink, you will want to speak directly to them and tell them that it’s not safe or wise to drive home in their condition. Such words may not be appreciated, but they are no less necessary.

Other times, we choose to speak words that are not only unnecessary, they’re harmful. Maybe not in some tangible, physical way. But they do harm to the person emotionally or mentally.

Such is the foundation of nonconstructive criticism. Criticism that’s done more for the benefit of the speaker than the hearer. It’s so easy to criticize. It’s more difficult to affirm.

Is it really necessary to say to someone, “You’re always late”? Does that encourage them to be more punctual? Not likely.

It’s much better to simply remind them that it’s important to be on time when they can actually do something about it.

Is it really necessary to say to someone, “You’re never going to amount to anything”? Does this encourage them in some way? Hardly.

How much better it would be to challenge them to improve. To mention one specific change that would be beneficial. And to do it with gentleness and care.

The bottom line when it comes to necessity is to simply ask yourself before you speak, “Is this necessary?”

Just asking the question will often provide the best answer. If it’s necessary, go ahead and say it. If it’s not, keep it to yourself where it belongs.

K = Kind

You may have noticed that our world is a lot less civil than it used to be. There is so much hostility in modern society that it’s shocking to see people in the public square speaking kindly to others. Especially to their opponents.

Whether the other person is a life partner, friend, colleague, or adversary, you can speak kindly to them. And you should. There’s nothing to be gained otherwise.

Kind words are polite words. They’re words that convey respect. Kind words build up rather than tear down. They encourage and make another person’s day or even their life journey a bit easier and more pleasant.

Kind words are free to speak. It takes just a little bit of effort to say something kind rather than something critical, harsh, mean, or cruel.

It’s been said that words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.

Kind words are charitable, considerate, courteous, and friendly. A kind word from a stranger can literally make a person’s day. Be the person who offers the kind word.

As the saying goes:

As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person.

Be the one who changes the world of one person through your kind words.

S = Sincere

The final test of “thanking” before you speak is sincerity. Sincerity is similar to honesty, but it’s not identical.

To be honest is to speak what is true. To be sincere is to speak what is genuine. It’s easy to be honest without being sincere. It’s more difficult to be sincere without being honest.

At the risk of generalizing, attorneys and politicians often speak words that are true but not sincere. Their words are honest to the degree that they aren’t lying. Their words are insincere in that they deliberately mislead or deceive.

There are many fine, honest, and sincere attorneys. Politicians too. But insincerity and dishonesty are common among them.

When we’re sincere, we may say something that isn’t even factual, but our purpose is noble.

There’s a time to be brutally honest. That time is usually when someone asks you to be. Other times we can be perfectly sincere without being perfectly factual. This happens all the time.

Someone asks you how you are and you respond with a friendly, “fine.” When truthfully you aren’t doing so well at that moment.

Someone may ask your preference, and you sincerely defer to them. You do have a preference, but you sincerely offer the other person the privilege of choosing.

Sometimes our words of encouragement are not 100% factual yet they are 100% sincere. We tell someone that everything will be okay, when deep down we know it won’t be. At least not in the way they think it will be.

Sometimes we sacrifice a bit of accuracy for the sake of sincerity and kindness. It makes the world a friendlier place.

Conclusion

I’ll close with a ditty that captures an important element of our speech.

Then deem it not an idle thing,
A pleasant word to speak;
The face you wear, the thoughts you bring,
A heart may heal or break.

And I leave you with a sober reminder of the responsibility we have when it comes to our words:

Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can only be forgiven, never forgotten.

About Author

I was born and raised in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. My dream as a child was to play professional baseball. I made it as far as a baseball scholarship to a Division 1 college. I’m a teacher at heart, and love to teach anything and anybody who wants to learn. I started out as a public school teacher. But within a few years, felt called to the ministry, where I spent 32 years as a pastor. I love the outdoors. I love to read. I love people. I love to learn. I try to take a long walk every day year-round. I’ve done that for more than 40 years. It’s where I do some of my best thinking. It also clears the cobwebs from my head and the nonsense that tries to take root there. My blog is Quotation Celebration, where I discuss the meaning and lessons contained within great quotes.

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