To Speak or Not To Speak: That is the Question

My quote post for today comes from the wisdom of one of my mentors. I have worked with her in two different capacities: first, when I was the assistant to the County Prosecutor and now that I am a judge. She is our very capable, very intuitive court clerk, and among the many hats she wears in that role, the one she takes most seriously is preserving the integrity of her Court. And she does it mighty well.

Susan has been our clerk for 25+ years, and experience of that length and magnitude has allowed her to face nearly every situation one could imagine in a court setting. She knows the law; she knows people. And when I first started working in the court system, green and fresh and naïve, she said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: “I can fix anything you mess up….except for what you do with your mouth.”

Working in a court means you carry with you many secrets. You are privy to information to which the general public has no access….until they do. You have sensitive information on your desk and in your head, and to be trusted in the court system, you must be discerning in what you say and what you keep to yourself.

So in the court context, she meant this: If you mess up something in the computer, your mistake will not be fatal. We can fix that. If you mess up something on paper, we can fix that, too. But if you tell someone you can help them, if you promise someone a particular outcome, if you give out the wrong information to the wrong person, you are on your own. You must learn to watch your tongue.

Susan said this to me when I was working as an assistant to the County Prosecutor, having no way of knowing that one day, I would be sitting on the same bench that I was serving. But it was as if she did, because I carried her words from one job title to the next. I had to be extra careful when I was but an administrative assistant, but as a judge, one wrong word could cost me my career.

Thank God she said it. Thank God I listened.

Even though I have used this mantra in my work environment, I think it applies to each one of us in life. Controlling our tongues is extremely difficult. From gossiping to the ole foot-in-mouth issue, we should be extra careful about what we say.

A few tips for avoiding a situation that you may not be able to fix:

1. To whom you are speaking?
How well do you know your listener? How much do you trust them? Do they have a reputation for being able to keep secrets, or are they known around town as the mouth of the South? There are many people in my life that I am lucky enough to call my friend, but I can count on one hand the people to whom I would tell my deepest, darkest secrets. The older I get, the more selective I am. When I was younger, if I was upset, mad, or concerned, I would pour out my heart to a telephone pole…or worse, someone who had less than my best interests at heart. Now, I reserve those deep feelings for people who I know without a shadow of a doubt I can trust, people who would die before they would betray my confidence. Those people are hard to find. Choose wisely.

2. Is what you are about to say helpful and uplifting?
Rarely do words that we speak which are degrading, demeaning, or disparaging help anyone. Most often, they cause hurt feelings or anger and can provoke retaliation in one way or another, causing a vicious cycle of animosity at the least and killing their spirit at the worst. No matter the position you are in, be it parent to child, employer to employee, person to person, you have the option of saying what needs to be said in a kind manner. Most often, it is not what is said, but how it is said. A deliberately thoughtful delivery can make even the worst news bearable.

3. Is what you are about to say true?
Are you sure? How do you know? Where did your information coming from? Did you do your research? Second and third-hand information is rarely completely and fully accurate. Somewhere down the line, facts get skewed, something is misinterpreted, or someone who is not properly educated tells it the only way they know how. Don’t repeat something you don’t know to be true. Whether you want it to be or not, whether you mean it to be or not, it is gossip. And remember that there are three sides to every story; his side, her side and truth. You can’t help interjecting your own viewpoint in retelling a story; you can’t help but bring into it your own biases. Even eye-witnesses have proven to be unreliable because everyone’s perspective is different. So remember: tell the truth, and nothing but the truth.

4. Is it in your job description?
In a professional situation, there are experts and there are novices.  A receptionist in a doctor's office may have seen so many sick people in her day that she can likely tell if a patient has a simple cold or a serious condition, but to do so isn't in her job description. The doctor is the expert; the receptionist is a novice, and a receptionist should not be doling out diagnoses. This isn't to belittle or demean anyone who is a receptionist, secretery, office manager or administrative assistant; I was in that position when I worked for the County Attorney, and we have our own roles. If someone called me and wanted to know about my boss’s schedule or what was coming up on the docket, I was your girl. (I knew where he was supposed to be more often than he did!) But if someone called wanted to talk about his or her case, I was out of my expertise. I may be able to accurately guess as to what my boss would do in any given situation because I had watched him, listened to him, and learned from him, just like the doctor's receptionist. But at the end of the day, he was the prosecutor; he was the one with the law degree. I wasn’t. To speak for him would have not only been unprofessional, it could have detrimental. So remember: work within your job description. Only give out the information you are authorized to reveal. Don’t let your ego speak for you. 

5. Are you supposed to be talking, or are you supposed to be listening?
No one, and I mean no one, wants unsolicited advice. One of my very best friends has the habit of, when I am venting about one thing or another, asking me if I want her to comment or if I just need her to listen. I can’t tell you how much I love and respect that about her. As one nearest and dearest to me, she can pretty much call me every name in the book and tell me I am a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person if she thinks that because she has earned that right in my life. But to have the humility to ask if I want her advice, knowing we are that close, shows a maturity and a respect for me that few possess. (Now you know why I’ve chosen her to be one of my nearest and dearest!) If someone is talking to you about a problem, ask yourself if it is the time and place to give out advice or if it is your turn to listen, and if you aren’t sure, ask. The person speaking will love you to pieces for it, and it may very well save you from saying something you can't fix, such as, “Yeah, you really screwed that up,” or “You know you were wrong, right?” If the subject matter is touchy, if the sitution is emotional, he or she may not be ready to hear cold, hard truth. If you are close to that person, the time will come. Chances are, they already know. But it takes some discernment to realize you may just need to put on your listening ears and let the speaker know that you love them and will be wearing those ears for as long as they are needed. Sometimes, silence speaks the loudest.

My mentor, my friend, my wise advisor Susan said something to me years ago that I’ve never forgotten. It helped me in the job I had at the time, prepared me for the one I hold now, and has aided me in every other corner of life. I most certainly don't get it right every time, but I try really hard. 

Most things are fixable. We actually get do-overs in this life sometimes. But when words spill out of our mouths, we can't stuff them back in. 

Hopefully, Susan's words will help you, too. Even more hopefully, you have a "Susan."  I thank God all the time that I do. 

Lucky girl over here.  

Do you have additional tips for deciphering how and when to speak and what to say? Tell us on our Facebook page!