Choosing Your Words Wisely: Insights on Improving Communication Skills

Considering how often poorly chosen words can lead to friction and arguments between family, friends or even strangers, we could all brush up on our communication skills – and even invite God to take part in our conversations. To help with that, here’s the text of the Christopher News Note “Choosing Your Words Wisely:”

And God said, “Let there be light: and there was light.”
—Genesis 1:3

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.
—John 11:43-44

WORDS HAVE POWER. From the beginning of time to Jesus quieting stormy seas with a command, the writers of the Bible testify to the power of words.

Made in God’s image, our creative spirits use words to make rich, connected lives. We pray and sing aloud to God. We write stories that carry us into another world and eloquent, heartfelt speeches that carry us “to the mountaintop.” Melodies may be sweet but words give songs specific meaning. A lover’s eyes may send an eloquent message but it is his tender words that his beloved repeats to herself the next day.

“Jesus summoned the crowd and said to them, ‘Hear and understand. It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.’”
—Matthew 15:10-11

Unfortunately, for every way words enrich and connect us, there is an opposite way that words can be used to harm. We see this all too often in the public forum of politics, where missteps are gleefully pounced on with pointed attacks. On a personal level, who among us hasn’t lost their temper or tried to hurt another by striking out verbally? Whether done by children on a playground or by adults at work or home, harsh words can be emotionally damaging to another. They can jeopardize our valued relationships. Harmful words aren’t always about anger. We remember Jesus being mocked during His Passion but we may forget that He endured it throughout His ministry.

“When they arrived at the house of the synagogue official, He caught sight of a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. So He went in and said to them, ‘Why this commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep.’ And they ridiculed Him. Then He put them all out.” —Mark 5:38-40

Being on the receiving end of demeaning, angry, or unfair words can be devastating, often to the point of paralysis if we fall into the trap of mentally replaying an encounter over and over. When that happens, we are literally giving words power over us. In these instances, we can do no better than to follow Christ’s example above. He ignored the ridicule and went on about His work. When we give into the urge to use words for harm, we are doing more than letting our emotions rule us. We are ignoring Christ’s directive, in the Sermonon the Mount: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law of the prophets.” —Matthew 7:12

“Doing unto others” can be easier said than done. Here are a few tips to help keep communications positive, whether written or in person. Keeping them in mind can help improve personal relationships, reduce conflict, strengthen cooperation, and foster understanding.

1. Listen
Give the speaker your full attention. Often we are listening with half an ear while mentally framing our answers to what the speaker hasn’t finished saying yet. By paying close attention to what is being said, nothing will be assumed or taken for granted. This also gives you a chance to think before you speak, which can be invaluable in touchy situations.

2. Ask Christ to join in
Is this a conversation you want Jesus to watch? One man says whenever he’s having a conversation that looks as if it might be veering toward high emotions, he will try to say a quick prayer that Christ will join in. The mental image of Jesus actually listening to everyone talking often prompts him to think more carefully about what he is going to say and to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Remembering that Christ knows everything you say and think can be just what you need if you are worried about a possibly negative conversation.

3. Assume the best
Try not to read anything into what someone else says. If you are unsure about the other person’s intentions in a statement, ask them. Always, err on the positive side when judging someone else’s comments. Henry James said it like this: “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” We could do much worse than to call this to mind whenever we are in an uncertain conversation.

4. Choose civility
Resist the urge for one-upsmanship, cleverness, or knocking someone off their high horse. You can’t go wrong turning the other cheek even when that is the last thing you feel like doing. Etiquette was invented for just such circumstances. There is nothing wrong with respectfully saying “Let’s agree to disagree” and changing the subject, especially if it is a contentious one like politics or religion.

5. If irate, wait
Never respond when you are angry or otherwise emotionally upset. If you can put off responding until later, you will reduce chances of saying or writing something you’ll regret. If the subject preys on your mind, write a letter to your opponent. You don’t have to send it, but you will get everything off your chest and it may help you sort out your thoughts for later discussion.

6. Speak truth in kindness
A churchgoer named Elise says that her priest told her truth is neither good nor bad. It simply is. However, it can be told to others in a good or bad way. “I often remember that,” she says, “just at the moment I am about to blurt out something bluntly. It never takes long to think of a more tactful way to phrase things, and it is definitely kinder.” Just pausing for a second to think of a more diplomatic way to put hard facts can make a big difference in how people receive information…and, ultimately, it feels better for all involved. As Maryknoll Father James Keller, the founder of The Christophers, once wrote, “It often takes a few more moments and a little added effort to be gentle and considerate, but it pays rich dividends. A hasty, sarcastic word, however, can quickly undo or offset many advances toward good. Seldom is anybody won by being nagged, irritated or belittled.”

7. Work extra hard to be clear when writing
Misinterpretation is easier in writing because there aren’t any nonverbal cues to show additional intentions. Studies show if you write something positive, the reader thinks it’s neutral. When you write something neutral, they think it’s negative. Care in vocabulary can go a long way toward carrying a positive, empathetic tone.

8. Use the buddy system
If time and circumstances allow, ask a trusted friend to look over what you’ve written or listen to your reasoning. They can help show you the other side of a disagreement and think issues through.

9. Apologize—and forgive
This one is a no-brainer but it can be quite difficult. Admitting we are wrong is rarely easy. Forgiving someone who hurt us can be equally challenging. Above all, forgiving ourselves for our part in a serious misunderstanding can take a long time. We are all imperfect. Apologies and forgiveness are one of the ways God gives us to heal each other.

10. Practice makes perfect
Anthony Bloom in Beginning to Pray tells the story of St. Philip Neri. An easily angered man, he begged Christ in the chapel to free him of his hostile outbursts to those around him. Leaving the chapel he ran into one person after another who treated him gruffly, instantly calling forth an angry response from Philip. Racing back to the chapel, Philip asked “O Lord have I not asked you to free me from this anger?” And the Lord answered “Yes, Philip, and for this reason I am multiplying the occasions for you to learn.” Don’t give up. Practice is what gives us the needed skills for good communications and few of us get everything right the first time. Above all, let us remember to love one another. We will draw closer to God when we do and help others to do the same—all through the power of well-chosen words.

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
—John 13:34-35

Prayer to Improve Communication Skills

Dear Lord,
Help me to choose my words wisely.
When I am tired or angry, may I take a deep breath and wait a minute,
so I may choose kindness and compassion over harsh words toward another.
When I am fearful or sad, may I refrain from words of hopelessness,
but use words of praise instead knowing that your solution and peace
is on its way.
When I feel frustrated or alone or unclear about which path to take,
may I remember to take a moment and meditate on Your Word,
to lead me back to You,
the source of all clarity and goodness. Amen.

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