One doesn’t have to read far in scripture to see that speech is powerful. In Genesis 1 God speaks creation into being. A couple chapters later the serpent’s speech leads Adam & Eve to their doom. In the New Testament we read of the power of the tongue and the need to control it. I’ll make three general observations in regard to how the power of speech pertains to leadership.
If you are on or follow social media you know we are in an age where people feel the urgency to speak up – and speak out. We can find people with opinions and pronouncements on nearly everything. Occasionally this speech has thought behind it, but often not.
As leaders, there are occasions in which we must speak up. We cannot remain silent. There are other occasions – perhaps more than we’d think – where not speaking up is the thing to do. Sometimes allowing silence for a span of time is the most productive thing we can do. How do we know?
First, let God’s love dwell in you. Let it work through you so that all you think and say is an expression of Jesus’ Great Commandment.
Second, seek understanding before you reply. We – like everyone else- understand things in light of our previous experience. We understand what other people say in terms of our prior experience; they understand what we say in terms of their prior experience. There is never 100% overlap in our prior experience. Misunderstanding is possible – and common. As we engage with people we can come to identify gaps in understanding and determine more closely what is being said. Understanding requires time and work. Waiting to speak until we maximize understanding requires patience on our part.
Third, we humans tend toward defensiveness. When we take ourselves to be criticized or under attack, we turn the tables and attack back. But what if the criticism isn’t criticism – what if we’ve misunderstood it? Or, what if the criticism is what we need to hear? When we are reflexively defensive we turn away from the opportunity to learn and improve ourselves.
What we say is also important. In Ephesians 4 Paul gives us the Christian rationale for speech. We speak, he suggests, to build others up. We often think the primary reason for speech is to impart information. We have information people need to hear, so we give it to them. Since passing on information happens in speech – and frequently! – we sometimes miss that there is more to speech. If we take Paul seriously, then paying attention to the effect of what we say is absolutely essential.
If our primary goal in speaking is building others up, that means we’ll have to pay closer attention to the people around us. While an application of the Golden Rule will help us sometimes (“I know what kinds of speech build me up, so I will direct those kinds of speech at the people around me”), we cannot assume that all people are like us. Other people hear differently. As I noted above, they hear us out of their own experiences, not ours. They may or may not feel an incentive to do any work to understand us or show us any charity in interpreting our words. As Christians who speak – and as leaders – we need to know our people well enough that we can discern what to say to each one to build them up, given not only their whole life, but also their current situation. Again, you can easily imagine that this will take work.
My third observation is that how we speak matters. We may be timely in what we say. Our content may be intended to build others up. But our way of speaking, or the mode of discourse we employ, may hve a negative influence on people.
One of the things I have to watch most in my own speech is my tendency to sarcasm. I’m very sarcastic on the inside. It used to come out more frequently, but I’ve been working on it for decades. There are probably occasions where it’s not a problem, but there are too many where it is. Too many people in the world don’t “get” sarcasm. For them, it’s always negative, always an attack. Out of our position of strength we might say, “Well, if they’re just a bunch of snowflakes who can’t handle a bit of humor, that’s not my fault.” While it is true that we (all of us) are sometimes overly sensitive, the burden of not injuring another is on the speaker. If we truly want to live others, if we want all our speech to be edifying, that determines our mode of speech also.
We also need to watch our attitude. Have you ever noticed the general atmosphere of negativity in our culture? Do you like it? Does it build you up? How do you feel when leaders around you speak negatively, when pessimism flows from their mouths? It’s true that we live in a broken and sinful world. It’s true that not everything is or will be happy. It’s true that our expectations and desires will often be thwarted. I’d also admit that mere positivity on our part is no magic. God can speak the world into being; we can’t. Nonetheless, our words and the attitudes they express have power. We can lift our people up or knock them down. Take the time to be positive. Express high expectations. Walk in faith.
So what do you do if you’ve discovered you’ve messed up, that something you’ve said (or not said), or the way you’ve said it, has hurt someone or torn them down? One action is to repent. Recognize what you’ve done wrong as wrong. Turn away from it. Confess it to God and receive forgiveness. Change your ways. In at least some cases, when you discover that you’ve hurt someone, the most appropriate thing to do is to go to them and confess to them. Sometimes they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. Sometimes what you’ve come to see as wrong on your part will have sailed right by them, with them taking no offense. Either way, it’s worth addressing if you can. (And you can, more often than you think.)
If you want dealing with a situation to be easier – and they are rarely easy at all, unless we live in a community where we’ve practiced this for some time – go to the person (or group) sooner rather than later. If they perceive what you said as hurtful, the longer you wait, the longer it festers. Festering isn’t a good thing. Also, the longer you wait, the more time you give yourself to rationalize your own words and actions, building up your defense so you can demonstrate that you were really in the right. Go sooner rather than later.
Speaking well and with the intention of edifying others, makes for healthy relationships, ministries, and churches. We cannot be the church God wants us to be – or have a significant and lasting impact on others – unless we work hard in this area.
A final word. We are stronger in this area when we hold each other accountable. IF you find me speaking in a way that goes against these guidelines, please let me know. If you want to work on your own speech, invite others to hold you accountable.