Listen, Observe, Think, Speak.

by Dr. Thor Bergersen

Words are funny things. They’re fickle and evasive. Sometimes the same word has different meanings. Contextual relationships can change as well as tone, volume and facial expression, making sound bites easy to distort. What, when, and how to say something to someone else is the essence of communication. Choosing words is not easy. Some are blessed with a silver tongue, while others seem to be born with foot in mouth. The fine line separating sparkling conversation from boorish banter is tricky to walk. Becoming a skilled wordsmith takes practice.

Many of the people with whom I meet are impulsive. They say what they think or feel without premeditation. Those with ADHD often have a malfunctioning delay mechanism, the brain’s version of “live” television’s 3-second pause, in which to review thoughts before they become speech. Needless to say, this instant transformation can cause problems. Verbal impulsivity can result in painfully accurate communication. Once the words are “out there,” they can’t be taken back.

Social and cultural rules generally discourage us from saying what we really mean. We learn that we’re not supposed to cause conflict or hurt feelings in daily conversations, and to be wary of misinterpretation or unexpected reactions. We are warned about making promises, creating unreasonable expectations and insulting others. Getting all of the words right is a lot of work. Instead, most of us take the easy way out. We stick to verbiage designed to avoid confrontation and expedite fulfillment of requests.

There is clearly a distinction between speaking what might be referred to as “the truth,” and communicating in “a thoughtful manner.” The quotation marks are meant to indicate an inherent ambiguity when it comes to truth and thoughtfulness. Speaking the truth can be outright rude in certain circumstances, while speaking thoughtfully can seem evasive. So then, how to be honest without being phony?

The key, as with almost all interpersonal skills, is mindfulness. To communicate effectively, you must first be present. Listen, observe, think. After that, speak. Don’t be afraid of silence. Thoughtful pauses are preferable to random babble. The mechanism in your brain creating a delay between thought and words needs the space to function. Allowing that space takes practice.