Last week I was working on a couple of deadlines with a pressure headache, making it hard to think. I sent a draft of one article to the editor with the caveat that I knew it needed work, but I was having trouble getting it right, especially the tone. The editor sent me back notes saying that the tone was definitely negative and suggesting a more positive slant to the same topic of scripture. It was the same idea, but it came at the topic from a different angle that was more about pointing someone in the right direction versus reprimanding them.
Tone will get you every time. No matter how true your words are if the person feels singled out and chastised, they are unlikely to take heed to what you have to say. How many times have you been in an argument and the other party says, “It’s not what you said; it is how you said it”? That, my friend, is tone. It is a common problem, especially in today’s electronic society.
When I was teaching and tutoring online, there was an emphasis on pointing out both the good and bad in an assignment. The trainers suggested the equivalent of a compliment sandwich. You open with what the student had done well, give critiques, and then close with an overview of the paper as a whole focusing on good points and positive suggestions on how to proceed. This approach helped the student know what they were doing right while helping them to improve in weaker areas. The student then felt inspired to make the corrections in order to make their writing better.
So, before we decide to correct someone spiritually, or grammatically, let’s take a look at what advice we can glean from the Bible on the subject. Proverbs is known as a book of wisdom and instruction, and it has a lot to say about words and how we use them:
- “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4)
- “Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24)
- “The words of a man’s mouth are as deep waters, and the wellspring of wisdom as a flowing brook.” (Proverbs 18:4)
- “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11)
All of these verses emphasize the idea of good words: wholesome tongue, pleasant words, deep waters, wellspring of wisdom, word fitly spoken. These phrases suggest words that are chosen thoughtfully and not just spouted off the top of our heads. Unfortunately, we are a society that speaks first and thinks later, me included at times; therefore, how should we approach correcting someone?
First, we need to make sure our tone is right, meaning humble and helpful not egotistical and condescending. Second, timing is as important as tone. The acronym HALT is a good one to remember: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. If you, or the other party, are any one of those things, you should probably wait. Finally, and most importantly, we need to figure out our motivation. If we aren’t doing it out of love, humility, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, then we should probably keep our mouths shut.
Now, let’s recap: think before you speak. That pretty much sums it up. It’s simple, but it is not easy. Writers have a step up on other people because we can revise before we publish; however, the way my face looks when people say stupid things is another issue altogether. I should probably work on that and the think before you speak thing. I would say it might require duct tape, but that won’t help the eye rolling. Well, let’s just all try to do our best. We are all a work in progress, which we would all do well to remember.