A wise man ponders how to answer;
the mouth of a fool pours out evil things.1
I had the amazing privilege of having an awesome dad. My brother, sisters and I learned many great life principles from him. He taught us the value of discipline, hard work, loyalty, integrity, and later in life, the importance of faith. My dad had the heart of a teddy bear, but the exterior of a Sergeant in the Marines. Maybe that would be because he was a Sergeant in the Marines. To say he had a short fuse would be the understatement of the decade. He had an explosive temper! Dad would say some of the most horrible, cutting, sarcastic and caustic things to my mom and us kids. He didn’t really mean the hurtful comments and later would not even be able to remember he said them. Dad’s explanation: “I’ve always had a bad temper…it’s just the way I am.”
During speaking engagements around the world I have heard countless people make comments like those of my father, “I have a bad temper, my dad had a bad temper, as did his dad before him. God made me this way, I can’t help it!” Later in this chapter we will discuss the three major theories of the world on why we are the way we are. You will learn in this discussion that while all three of these influence our behavior; they do NOT determine our choices.
Meet the Mitchell Family
Steven- Dad, hot tempered, works at a marketing firm, manages a creative team that is currently seeking to win a contract with a major food distributer
Renee- Mom, High school principal, passive aggressive, struggles to actively listen to her kids after long days dealing with students and teachers
Jacob- Only son, a junior in high school
Megan- Only daughter, a freshman in high school
Typical Evening in the Mitchell Home
Steven tried desperately to decompress while driving home from work, knowing that his family was waiting for him at home. Today had been stressful, with his team’s presentation only a week away, and Steven knew it was his last chance to prove his worth as the newest marketing director. Pulling into the driveway, he took one deep breath to calm his nerves before starting the evening with his wife, Renee, and teenagers Jacob and Megan. Although he considered himself a good Dad, Steven had trouble leaving work at the office and often lost his temper at home. Opening the door slowly, he slipped into the house to find cleats and gym bags strewn by the door. “How many times have I asked them to put their gear away when they get home? Can’t these kids show some respect?” he thought. Annoyance rising in the pit of his stomach, Steven walked towards the living room to ask the kids to clean up. Megan, sitting on the couch, was playing on her phone while Jacob and Renee argued over class schedules. Nobody seemed to notice, or care, that Steven was home from work. Feeling unappreciated, he snapped, “Go clean up now! Maybe if I make you pay for your own equipment you would actually take care of it. I’m sick and tired of repeating myself. GO!” Megan moved first, passing her father by without making eye contact. Jacob, rolling his eyes, said “Nice to see you too Dad.” Renee, a high school principal and the more patient parent, muttered, “We will talk later.” Steven retreated to his office knowing, for the rest of the evening, everyone would be tense.
The first step in Healthy Communication is Taking Responsibility
President Harry Truman had a famous plaque on his desk that simply read, “The Buck Stops Here.” The first step in changing the way you relate to others is to accept responsibility for the way you communicate today. To say in the words of President Truman, regarding your communication with others, the buck stops with you!
Andy Andrews, best selling author and speaker, said it this way in writing on success in life (which by the way, includes success in communication),
Never again will I blame my parents, my spouse, my boss or my employees for my present situation. Neither my education or lack of one, my genetics, or the circumstantial ebb and flow of every day life will affect my future in a negative way. If I allow myself to blame these uncontrollable forces for my lack of success, I will be forever caught up in a web of the past…I take responsibility for my past. I am where I am today because of the decisions I have made. My decisions have always been governed by my thinking. Today I will begin the process of changing where I am by changing the way that I think.2
Despite all the wisdom in these words, many in the academic world would argue that our behavior is determined by forces outside our control; that there is no such thing as “free will” or “the freedom to choose.” Let’s examine these three theories.
Three Major Theories
Genetic Determinism—This means that our ancestors determine our behavior through the genetic code passed from one generation to the next. Many people today accept this theory at face value. For example, a lady I worked with once told me, “My mother had a short fuse and her mother had a bad temper; I inherited it.” With this statement, she relieved herself of the responsibility of venting on the people she loved the most. “I can’t help it; this runs in the family.” No one would disagree that genetics powerfully influence us. Many of the wonderful physical traits and talents we posses come genetically from our ancestors. However, they do not determine us. Here’s the rest of the story on the illustration above, the same woman who was unable to control her anger and responses at home chose to behave differently in the workplace because she knew the public display of her anger could bring severe consequences. She was influenced, but not determined, by genetics.
Psychic Determinism—This is the Freudian idea that the “child is father to the man.” This theory presupposes that the way we are raised by our parents during the first five or six years of our lives determines our behavior as adults. Again, there is no question that these early years influence us greatly, but they do not determine us. We can choose our response to those influences. As mentioned earlier, I grew up with a dad who displayed very little self control related to his anger. Yet my wife, Debra, and I made two major commitments to each other prior to our marriage: First, we would never say anything to each other we did not absolutely mean. Second, we would not let the sun go down on our anger with each other. We have honored these commitments. As people, we have the freedom to learn, grow, change and choose.
Social Determinism—If you have ever studied psychology, you will recognize the letters SR or stimulus response. You have probably heard of Pavlov’s Dog. Behaviorists repeatedly ring a bell while feeding a dog. Eventually, every time the dog hears a bell, its saliva glands begin to work due to the association of a ringing bell and being fed. They call this stimulus response and suggest that just like animals we are similarly determined through this process. Again, I disagree! The power to choose means that as humans, we have the power to separate the stimulus from our response. There is no question that stimulus influences us and, at times, powerfully. But it does not determine us.
While all three of these theories powerfully impact us as human beings, we have the ability to respond to any person or situation based on our values. Healthy families, businesses, churches and friendships are made up of learning and growing individuals who exercise and develop their “ability to choose.”
The Wisdom of Solomon
Solomon clearly sides with Taking Responsibility for the communication process and relating in a healthy way with family, co-workers, clients and friends. He said, "A wise man ponders how to answer; the mouth of a fool pours out evil things.” Notice that a wise man “ponders” how to how to answer—responder. Also note that a fool “pours out evil things” in answering—reactor. These incredible words from the wisest man that ever lived teach us that we as human beings have the ability to choose our response, not just to react. Webster defines responder and reactor this way:
- Responder/Response: Something that is said or written as a reply to something
- Reactor/React: to behave or change in a particular way when something happens, is said, etc. i.e. When I told her what happened, she reacted with anger.
Solomon doubles down on this truth with these words, “A fool gives full vent to his anger—(reactor), but a wise man quietly holds it back—(responder).”3 Did you see the Wisdom of Solomon in these words? People are wired with the skill to separate stimulus and response. When faced with a difficult conversation or challenging circumstances, growing healthy people have the ability to filter the situation through their values, character, what they are learning in life and then choose to respond accordingly.
If Solomon could have a one on one conversation with you or me concerning communication and relating to family, friends, co-workers or clients, he would simply begin with “Take Responsibility.”
Wise Warnings From Solomon
Solomon has more than a few wise warnings for those who refuse to take responsibility for their harsh and cutting communication.
Rash words are like a sword thrust, the tongue of the wise brings healing.4
Kind words heal and help; cutting words wound and maim.5
A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.6
Smart people know how to hold their tongue; their grandeur is to forgive and forget. Mean spirited leaders are like mad dogs; the good-natured are like fresh morning dew.7
These warnings are sobering to say the least for those who choose not to take responsibility for their communication. If you continue to toss verbal hand grenades into tense situations with your family, co-workers, clients and friends there will be a heavy price to pay.
There is a stiff price to pay for not taking responsibility:
- Rash words are like a sword thrust
- Cutting words wound and maim
- A sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire
- Mean spirited leaders are like mad dogs
There are great rewards for taking responsibility:
- The tongue of the wise brings healing
- Kind words heal and help
- A gentle response defuses anger
- The good-natured are like fresh morning dew
Wow! The benefits of taking responsibility for our communication are amazing: We all desire healthy relationships with the people we love and care about. Relationships that last are marked by effective listening, true understanding, genuine concern and a positive path for conflict resolution. Solomon promises all of these if we will simply take responsibility for how we communicate.
Here is a great question for all of us to ask ourselves continuously: How much do we value the well being of our family, co-workers, clients and friends? I sense the answer for all of us is that we greatly value those we love and care about, and I feel certain Solomon would say to each of us, “they are worth it, take responsibility.”
In the next nine chapters you will learn the secrets of success in Taking Responsibility for your communication. When these truths are fully integrated into your everyday life, your relationships with those you love and care about will not only survive, but also thrive.
1 Proverbs 18:28, Revised Standard Version
2 Andy Andrews, The Responsible Decision PDF, (andyandrews.com/downloads) Selected quotes.
3 Proverbs 29:11, Revised Standard Version
4 Proverbs 12:18, Revised Standard Version
5 Proverbs 15:4, The Message
6 Proverbs 15:1, The Message
7 Proverb 19:11-12, The Message