September 21, 2018

“Think Before You Speak”

Rep Maxine Waters, D-CA

This advice was common for centuries. Today it is considered passé because we have been taught that mental health depends on valuing feeling over thought and expressing whatever we feel freely and spontaneously. In practice, that means blurting out whatever happens to pop into our minds without considering its impact on others. That is unfortunate because in this age of texting and tweeting, we have more ways of saying things we will later regret.

Let’s say your friend asks, “Do you think I am a good mother?” You may be tempted to respond without considering the impact of your words. But it would be better to pause and ask yourself some pertinent questions: Why is she asking that? Does she want an honest appraisal or simply assurance? What can I say that will be helpful without seeming judgmental or making her feel defensive? Such a pause takes only twenty or thirty seconds, but if that length seems awkward, you can say at the outset, “That’s a challenging question—let me think about it for a moment.”

After a little thought, you might decide that the best response is not to answer directly but to guide her to answer her own question. You could reply, “What characteristics do you think make a good mother?” If she says “patience” or “always being available to my child” or “being a good listener,” you could then ask, “Do you have that quality?” Whatever her answer, you can ask for an example of a situation in which she did (or didn’t show) the quality. From there you can ask questions that guide her toward answering her original question herself.

The net effects of this prudent approach would be to remain honest, avoid damaging a relationship, and yet at the same time be helpful to your friend.

The applications of this simple practice are many.

Those of us who are parents are often tempted to say something unhelpful or even hurtful to our children. They may ask for permission to do something or accuse us of being mean or uncaring. The best response in either case is to say, “I’d like to give that some thought before answering,” then take sufficient time to consider various responses and choose the best one.

Often the challenge to restraint may not be anything children say but some behavior that we believe needs correcting. Here we should consider these questions before responding: Is it better to speak now or choose a more appropriate time? Have I responded to this behavior before? If so, how productive was that effort? Might a different approach work better? What approaches should I consider?”

Difficult situations at work can be handled in much the same way. In addition, we can lessen the chances of being caught off-guard by anticipating common situations and preparing responses in advance. For example, our prepared response to office gossip about a co-worker or the boss might be “She has always treated me well,” “Perhaps she was having a bad day,” “She has a difficult, stressful job,” “or, with a smile, “My mother always said I’d do well to focus on my own faults, which I can correct, than on other people’s, which I can’t.”

Among the areas most affected by the tendency to speak without thinking is politics. And both what is said there and the way it is said are increasingly troubling. I am referring not so much to the exchanges we have with family and friends, though they too may be undermined by mindless emotionalism, but more importantly to the examples of outrageous speech and action that fill the news, such as the following:

Representative Maxine Waters urging a crowd “if you see anybody from that [Republican] Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

Michelle Wolf making remarks like this at the White House Correspondents’ dinner: “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree? I’m not suggesting she gets hurt. Just stuck. Stuck under a tree.”

The owner of the Red Hen restaurant who asked White House Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to step outside the restaurant and informed her that “the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation,” adding “I’d like to ask you to leave.”

The protesters who harassed DHS Secretary Kirsten Nielsen as she tried to eat dinner in a restaurant, reportedly chanting at her, “How dare you spend your evening here eating dinner . . .You’re complicit in the separation and deportation of over 10,000 children separated from their parents . . . If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace! Not in DC, not in the US!”

A woman holding a young child approaching EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and saying, “This is my son, he loves animals, he loves clean air, he loves clean water so I would urge you to resign before your scandals push you out.”

The people who spoke and/or acted in these cases couldn’t have thought carefully before doing so. Waters couldn’t have reflected on the ethics or legality of inciting crowds to harassment, and neither she nor Wolf could have thought about the harmful actions their listeners might possibly take after hearing them. The restaurant owner couldn’t have asked herself whether she was violating Sanders’ rights. The people who intruded on Neilson’s and Pruitt’s privacy couldn’t have asked themselves whether there was a kindler, more appropriate, and perhaps more effective way to register their presumed grievances. And none of these people could have taken the time to wonder whether the Golden Rule of treating others as we would wish to be treated should govern their behavior.

Thinking carefully before they spoke and/or acted would likely have prevented their regrettable behavior. Moreover, it would have served as a reminder that the civility so vigorously championed in liberal precincts is only possible through self-restraint. It can also do the same for us.

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero