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How to Think Before Speaking

"Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise: and he that shuts his lips is esteemed a man of understanding."
Proverbs 17:28 American King James Bible

One of the most obvious and significant attributes of humans is the ability to communicate through speech. An interesting corollary is that we can also communicate our thoughts in real time; we do not need to plan what we’re going to say before we say it. This has both advantages and disadvantages. It would clearly be undesirable for us to have to formulate our thoughts before issuing an immediate warning "run!". And communication would be dramatically slowed if we were unable to respond, fluidly, to people in normal conversation.

On the other hand, this innate ability is often the source of consternation when what we say on the spur of the moment is something we later wish we had either not said, or had said differently; it, sometimes, happens to each of us. The trick is to remember when. Typically, this happens when we are responding in stressful situations, or during confrontation, although it can happen at any time. Recognizing that we do not always say what we would like to communicate is an important realization. Mitigating this issue is not complex, but it does require some behavioral changes. The goal is to be aware of when to talk naturally and fluidly and when to think before we speak and when not to speak at all.


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    Observe yourself: Take note of the circumstances when what you say is not what you, upon reflection, would have wanted to say. Does it happen mostly with one particular person or a particular group of people or just groups in general? Is it most often in arguments or debates? Is it when you’re "on the spot" and pressed to supply information? Try to find a pattern. It might be helpful to start a journal of events so you can compare these at your leisure.
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    Recognize your situation: After you determine what circumstances might be most likely to produce this unwanted effect, try to be very observant about when those conditions appear to be manifesting. The more skilled you become at recognizing this, the better you will be at changing your approach.
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    Observe the conversation. Now that you know you’re in one of "those" situations, the goal is for you to process information. Often when we respond in a less than appropriate way, it’s because we didn’t fully comprehend what was being said. This is the time to sit back and listen to what’s going on around you. Don’t start focusing on what you’re going to say; just absorb. Your mind will process this information in the background.
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    Observe the people: Who is speaking and how do they communicate? Some people are very literal and some people use examples. Some people use a lot of facial expression and body language to augment their conversation, whereas others rely on complex verbiage. How people convey information is a very good indicator of how they best absorb information.
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    Formulate responses: Not just one, but consider your options. There are many different ways to say things. and your goal here is to find the best way to convey what you want to say in a way that has a positive impact. Communication is primarily a function of the recipient so you have to communicate based on the listener.
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    Consider the information: Is what you want to say Effective, Necessary, Accurate, Timely, and Appropriate (ENATA)? If you are just responding because other people are talking, then it’s possible your communication doesn’t fit the ENATA model. If not, then sit back and continue to listen. You want what you say to have impact, not just make noise.
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    Gauge the reaction: Is the information you’re going to present formulated in a way to make a positive impact? Creating a negative atmosphere will guarantee failure in communications. You want people to understand that you are contributing rather than detracting. It only takes once to ruin your ability to communicate during that time. Identify how the listeners will react.
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    Be thoughtful about your tone: How you say it is, in many ways, as important as what you say. Tone of voice can convey enthusiasm and sincerity, or it can rebuff and show sarcasm, and as most people have experienced, what we say can be taken in the wrong way. The most likely reason is that the tone of voice, what was said, body and facial language, as well as content, were not all thoughtfully combined to integrate with the listener’s most effective method of communication.
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    Communicate: You now know what you’ll say, why it’s ENATA, how you’ll say it and the most likely reaction. Wait for an appropriate break in the conversation and speak. It’s usually best not to interrupt, although there are occasions when that will work best. When to interrupt is beyond the scope of this document.
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    Observe yourself again: While you’re talking, consider what you’re saying and keep a close watch on the reactions as they emerge. After the conversation is over, review the whole process again in your mind and note what you might have done differently and why. This is an ongoing process. Over time, you will refine and improve – you will become a better communicator and people will accept your responses with a more open mind.


  • Make sure your comments are relevant and appropriate to the conversation. Don’t stray from the topic – stay focused.
  • Wait 5 or 10 seconds before responding. This gives you time to formulate a): whether a response is required, and b): an appropriate and thoughtful response.
  • Remember the famous and well-known quotes
    • "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." ~~Abraham Lincoln: February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865
    • "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." ~~Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain): November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910
  • When you say something you shouldn't have, and if it was something hurtful, make a point to apologize. Either immediately, or in private; however is most appropriate.
  • When you say something you shouldn't have, fix it in your mind to avoid that specific situation in the future.
  • Before entering a room think about the people involved in the situation and the possible questions you might be asked. Decide how you will respond and what points you want to make before entering the room.
  • This will take time – it should become a part of your life. As you get better, you will be regarded as someone whose opinion is valued.
  • To remind yourself to think before saying something, pinch yourself on the finger or somewhere discreet (gently, but just enough to get yourself on track). If you develop a routine for answering a question, you will be less likely to say the first thing that comes to mind.
  • Resting your chin on the back of your hand (as illustrated above) is a body language that can convey thoughtfulness. Be aware of the surroundings, though, as it can also convey boredom.


  • If people aren't actually addressing you, they may not want your opinion. Try to tone down how much you force yourself into conversations.
  • Strictly avoid "flame speak." Insults or inappropriate personal references of any kind are frequently used on the Internet for effect, but in conversation the outcome is quite different; you will lose respect and you are guaranteed a negative result. Remember - this is about thinking before you speak.
  • Avoid overuse of common phrases. Examples are 'the bottom line is'.
  • If you do not know what you’re talking about, do not try to be convincing. It’s okay to express an opinion, but make sure people know you’re speculating.
  • Absolutes are rarely accurate. Using terms like always or never provides an opening for argument. "Often," "frequently," "occasionally," "infrequently" and "rarely" are good substitutes. Keep in mind: "It's never always perfect," and always remember to never use always and never.
  • Saying these many times will make your listener tired of hearing the same thing.

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