You can’t take back what’s been said – the Wisdom of the Ancients and Mom


A recent article in Lifehacker quotes the Ancients to remind us about a timeless topic: “Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue.” Chances are you heard this wise advice from your Mom when she reminded you that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.  Turns out the ancients and Mom were onto something.  No matter how you might wish you could take back hurtful words or scathing criticisms hurled during conversations, in e-mails and memos, on Facebook or Twitter, you can’t.  Words have power.

It turns out, millennia after millennia, people remember how words you spoke made them feel.  Words can build people up and empower them or they can tear people down.  This is not to say writing or speaking “constructive criticism” is easy.  Criticizing constructively is required all day, every day.  How you Yelp a small business, how you prepare an employee evaluation, how you tell a good friend off for hurting your feelings, or how you communicate perceived weaknesses in an opponent’s case calls for more tact and less venom every time.

Fortunately, there is also a time-tested hack.  The best course is to take time to think before you speak or hit the “send” button.  Try walking away from the keyboard and see how you feel 15 minutes after you typed the “accurate but heated” email.  In today’s digital world, 15 minutes might seem like a very long time, but there’s millennia of research behind the “think first and speak later” approach.

What if you forgot what Mom and the ancients recommend and you said something hurtful, cutting, or unlikely to be forgotten this decade.  Turns out the words we use to apologize are important. Human experience, and the best public relations teams, teach it’s best not to apologize for how your words made them feel because the focus of that approach is still you, but rather to apologize for the fact that you communicated words formed in a thoughtless way and without taking their feelings into account.

Also, you can make a pledge that you will do better in the future.  Maybe you didn’t have your facts straight, jumped to a conclusion, and that created a negative view on your part.  Chances are, if you had a better understanding of what was going on, you might have had a different opinion—and been kinder in the process.  So, let the person you hurt know that you now recall that not every opinion needs to be shared especially if speaking won’t improve on the silence.

These lessons are often learned too late in the legal setting when parties have the chance to speak at a deposition, at a hearing, or in a mediation.  Choosing to avoid hurling negative or hurtful words can change how parties feel about themselves, you and your client, and can transform the process into an   environment where a mutually-beneficial settlement can flourish.    Speak words that build up the process, not tear it down.

Steven Mehta
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