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Being Slow to Speak

Updated Jan 21, 2009
Being Slow to Speak

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” 
— James 1:19

In part one of our series on this passage we focused on how being “quick to listen” affects our relationships—now and in the future.  The second important point in James 1:19 that can have a great impact in our relationships tells us that we are to be “slow to speak.”

Slow to speak.  It sounds easy enough.  But how easy is it when you hear something that you disagree with?  What happens when someone is sharing something that you know a great deal more about or have just experienced?  Are you slow to speak when someone is totally wrong about something?  What if someone says something that you find offensive? 

'Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.
— Abraham Lincoln

There has to be a good reason that “quick to listen” comes first and the only one of the three points that we are to be “quick to” do. Through personal experience, I have found that being a person who is “slow to speak” can make you a better listener, allow you to be better understood and be more respectful—not regretful.

Be a Better Listener

A couple of years ago, I had a blind date whom I knew next to nothing about.  She was pleasant, and I asked many questions about her, her job, her family, etc.  I was able to learn a great deal about her and her likes and dislikes, but by the time the evening ended, I noticed that she didn’t ask one question of me.  She didn’t know where I was from, she didn’t know what I did for a living and she didn’t know if I was orphaned or had a large family.  I don’t think she even realized that she did most of the talking and very little listening.  I did not plan on being “slow to speak” that night, but it did allow me to learn a great deal about her and about the importance of being a good listener. 

Job struggled with listening to God after his losses and during his affliction.  God told Job, “Pay attention, Job, and listen to me; be silent, and I will speak.  If you have anything to say, answer me; speak up, for I want you to be cleared.  But if not, then listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom” (Job 33:31-33).

Oftentimes, I get so excited to share something that I don’t even notice if the person is listening to me or not.  What I have found is that learning and wisdom come as a result of me being slow to speak and how well I am able to listen in my relationships.

Be Better Understood

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction out of Washington, “Communication is defined as a process by which we assign and convey meaning in an attempt to create shared understanding.”

One place where I enjoy listening to people communicate is Starbucks.  I find it fascinating (and humorous) to hear people put in their drink order.  There are over 55,000 possible drink combinations that can be ordered, according to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.  Fifty-five thousand drinks!  I appreciate how “my barista” listens attentively and is “slow to speak,” waiting until I complete my order before repeating it back to me to make sure it was understood. (Don’t forget to tip your barista!)

The success or demise of a relationship is often dependent upon whether or not there is communication and understanding within that relationship.  Oftentimes, we are quick to formulate an answer or retort (and quick to defend ourselves) speaking back before the other person is finished.  Problems can’t and won’t be solved (or understood) unless each person is first quick to listen and then slow to speak.  Both parties must take an active part in speaking, listening and most importantly understanding one another.

The Lord knew the potential that communication has when it is understood.  “The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other’” (Genesis 11:6-7). 

The Lord wanted to stop the men from constructing the city and tower of Babel, so He made communication impossible for them by confusing their spoken language.  The men were not able to communicate their plans or understand one another and the work ceased.  The same thing can happen in a relationship when one or both parties are not willing to be slow to speak—allowing the other person to talk and be understood.

Be Respectful Not Regretful

Think twice before you speak, and then you may be able to say something more insulting than if you spoke right out at once.
— Evan Esar (1899 - 1995),
Esar's Comic Dictionary 

If there is one good reason to be slow to speak, it would be so that something isn’t said that would later be regretted.  How many times have you spoken “off the cuff,” wishing you could take it back?  In this day and age where almost everyone around you has immediate access to a recording device, whether it’s a digital camera, a PDA, or a cell phone, your action and your words can be recorded and sent throughout the world in just minutes.  (Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law, or more importantly on a Web site.)

We read or hear about people every day who have made statements that they later regret or are called upon to explain—politicians, radio hosts, comedians, athletes, television personalities, etc.

“The godly think before speaking; the wicked spout evil words.”
— Proverbs 15:28

I am sometimes guilty of trying to be the guy with the quick wit, the funny comment or the one with the answer, but often I have fallen flat by an inappropriate comment or untimely remark.  In a close relationship, such comments can be magnified and can cause even greater harm and forever alter the bond that you have.

Whether it’s a loved one, a friend or just an acquaintance, we should all strive to show others respect (not regret) in our communication.  We can do this with words, but also in being slow to speak.

Solomon shares his wisdom about being slow to speak (in respect to God), “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.  God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.  As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words. … Much dreaming and many words are meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 5:2-3, 7).

When you are slow to speak, you are able to listen to others.

When you are slow to speak, you are better understood.

When you are slow to speak, you show respect and don’t often say things that you shouldn’t or will someday regret.

Let your words be few and your patience great.


Cliff Young is a contributing writer to Sandlot Stories (ARose Books).  An architect and former youth worker, he now works with Christian musicians and consults for a number of Christian ministries. Got feedback?  Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

**This article first published on January 23, 2008.


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