What did you say?


I have been silent since last Thursday. Well, my voice can make a weird little hoarse scrape, but nothing resembling a human voice comes out of this throat just yet. I have found myself communicating through gesture, text, and handwritten notes. Because it’s such an effort to have a conversation, I find myself weighing my words, evaluating whether they really need to be said. Most of the time, they don’t!

It’s been an interesting journey this year, this inability to use my speaking voice to communicate. I have learned that words have power. I mean, I always knew that, but not until the faculty of speech was gone did I really comprehend how much impact a word can have.

I confess that I have, unfortunately, let my mouth get away from me, like a runaway train that I am seemingly powerless to stop. I know I have hurt my husband, kids, family, students. We all have done that, it’s part of being human, and it’s one of the things we hope to learn how to control as we walk our journey. Sometimes, I have just plain talked too much! When our voices become meaningless chatter that our listeners have to wade through to find the nugget of meaning, we dilute the power of our speech. My kids like to tease me that when I am telling them what to have for dinner, I will repeat that there is sandwich meat in the fridge and bread in the pantry at least three times. I want to be sure they hear me! I think that comes from teaching so many years, when you give the instructions three times and without fail a student will raise his hand and ask what he’s supposed to be doing.

Silence has just as much power. We’ve all known the parent, teacher, or coach who affected change not by screaming fits, but with a silent look of disappointment that cut to the quick. I am not good at the kind of silence that allows injustice to perpetuate. I am not good at ignoring problems or pretending that everything is okay. I will find a way to confront the problem. But what I am learning now is to choose my words carefully. A well chosen word can be like the lancet that breaks open the festering wound so that it can be cleansed and healed. A well chosen word can end a fight. It can heal.

I think the most powerful element of communication is the one that gets the least glory: Listening. I know that in this arena, my shortcoming is busy-ness. I just don’t stop moving and multi-tasking to listen to what is being said to me. I believe that real listening happens when I stop moving, look into the eyes of my conversation partner, and stop thinking of what my response is going to be before she even finishes what she is saying. I believe the greatest sign of respect we can give to another person is to listen to what that person has to say, without cutting them off, finishing their sentences, or giving a distracted “uh-huh” to indicate fake listening.

It is impossible to pass through this life in perfect control of our speech. We get tired, frustrated, distracted, and hurt. But I am convinced that as we get older and wiser, our speech must become more meaningful, our words must be chosen and wielded with conviction, and we must learn how to listen and use silence to build bridges.

Tomorrow, I will continue on this quiet path. Who knows, I may stay quiet for the rest of my days. I hope to keep learning how to say things right. I will say this: I want each word I send into the universe to have significance.

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