If you could pull some kind of Twilight Zone stunt and go back to a certain period in your life to make one change — which adjustment do you think would affect the rest of your life the most?
Looking back on my 20s I could imagine the long-term ramifications of changes like studying harder, eating healthier or even coming up with better lines around women. But if I could go back and only change one thing, it would be this: I would look for more opportunities to shut up. I would try to capture thousands of stupid, insensitive, coarse, vain and unhelpful comments that I let fly out of my mouth over the years. That one change, I’m convinced, would affect the remainder of my life the most.
But the sad reality is that all those words I launched into the world — my gossip, my boasts, my tasteless jokes, my poorly formed opinions and much more — are irretrievable. As a result, my reputation among those who knew me during my 20s bears the scars and bruises inflicted by my careless tongue.
As a preacher’s kid, I should have known better. It’s not like I had never seen the numerous warnings throughout the Bible encouraging tongue control. I remember from my dad’s sermons that James had some of the Bible’s best commentary on the tongue — starting early in his letter when he says, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
It’s toward the middle of James’ letter, however, that we get a sense of how powerful and dangerous an unbridled tongue can be:
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:3-8).
If one little body part can do so much damage, then it seems obvious that any efforts to get established, to reach maturity or especially to emerge as a leader during your 20s are incomplete without a committed effort to rein in your tongue.
One great way to observe and begin changing your speaking habits is to take “The Great Tongue Test.” In four days it can dramatically help you talk less, ask more questions, stop gossiping and speak more constructively — all habits that increase maturity and nourish your soul.
Here’s the rundown:
Day One: Silence
I think one reason I chattered as much as I did was because I always dreaded that awkward silence that set in when conversation ran out. What I realize now is that the silence I dreaded was rarely as awkward as the noise I replaced it with.
The wisest man ever said, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (Proverbs 17:28). Too often in the past, I removed all doubt about where I stood on the foolish-wise continuum by vocalizing everything that crossed my mind.
A temptation for many of us is to sell ourselves to others primarily through our words — we prefer to impress by telling instead of showing. But how often do we over promise with our words then under perform with our actions? As Ben Franklin observed, “Well done is better than well said.”
We could all benefit from speaking a whole lot less. So here’s the challenge for day one: See how little you can say in 24 hours. Dry out from talking. Give your tongue muscles and vocal cords a break.
In every situation, ask yourself, “Will what I say make a difference?”
Day Two: Asking Questions
Once your silence test is over and you’re ready to use some words again, try this: Just ask questions.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Don’t you love it when other people live out that Scripture around you? Who impresses you more, the person who frequently shares their resume or the person who asks about yours? At our core, we want to be known and appreciated. The people I’ve always respected the most were those who didn’t feel the need to remind me of their credentials, but who felt secure enough to genuinely put my interests above their own.
Think of people like that in your life as you take this challenge. When someone else is talking, don’t spend your spare mental time judging their comments or planning your response. Instead, practice listening at a deeper level — try to understand their view of life. Then ask questions to clarify or get more detail. Most importantly, demonstrate that you want to know them — that they are worth your attention.
Groucho Marx had a bad habit of trying to “top everybody” he talked to, but he said he stopped because he found it killed his conversations. “When you’re always trying for a topper you aren’t really listening.”
The questions challenge gives you the opportunity to re-cultivate your curiosity. Living it out will bring you the reward of new knowledge and deeper connections with those around you.
Day Three: Speaking as if Your Subjects are Omnipresent
I remember a skit on Saturday Night Live called “Mr. No-Depth Perception.” The man’s friends are surprised to hear him gossiping loudly about someone sitting at the table right beside him. Because he perceives the person to be much further away, Mr. No-Depth Perception doesn’t see the problem. How often do we not see the problem in gossiping because we assume the people we are talking about are too far away to be hurt by our comments?
Stephen Covey uses the expression “loyalty in the absent” to describe how we should speak about others when they’re not around. In our minds, we should always imagine the people we are talking about to be right there beside us taking it all in.
That’s the challenge for day three: Only say about people what you would say to their face. That goes for everyone: your family, roommates, professors, bosses or anyone else you tend to talk about. Solomon even extends this principle to how we talk about people we may never meet. In Ecclesiastes, he says, “Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say” (Ecclesiastes 10:20).
How would this challenge change what you say about people? Proverbs says, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue” (Proverbs 11:12). You’ll likely find that simply holding your tongue is the best response when you’re living with the (realistic) assumption that everything you say will get back to the person about whom you’re talking.
Day Four: Making Only Positive Comments
Here’s the last test: Say only constructive things.
There’s a French Proverb that says, “To speak kindly does not hurt the tongue.” So why does it seem so difficult to find nice things to say? It’s easier to detail problems, to complain or to criticize than it is to speak in terms of solutions, encouragement or support.
The Hebrew Proverbs tell us “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). This scripture reminds us that the people around us need someone who can avoid the easy path of negative comments in favor of finding words that build up.
The point of day four is to look for opportunities to bring healing through your words. It doesn’t just mean refraining from hurtful comments. It means only saying things that help — deliberately choosing to bless instead of curse.
If you take “The Great Tongue Test” over the next four days, you’ll quickly find out that it’s next to impossible to pull off each of these challenges. It just won’t feel natural to stay silent or to limit your words to questions or nice things that can be said to people’s faces. However, just trying is a powerful way to start putting in practice the guidelines God has given us for a redeemed tongue. Making your best effort in these challenges will pay off in your listening skills, your relationships and your maturity.
And there’s a very practical benefit to boot — as a wise man once said, “a closed mouth gathers no feet.”
Copyright 2003 Steve Watters. All rights reserved.