Who are you most intimidated by? Are you most likely to flatter them, attack them, mock them, or talk behind their back?
Proverbs has advice about how we speak. There are warnings against these four modes in particular. Have a look at what happens when Flattering Fiona, Cynical Cynthia, Aggressive Allan and Gossiping Greg get together for the Harmony West Soccer Awards Night Committee meeting:
A lot of these speech behaviours can come from a place of insecurity. When we come across someone we’re a bit intimidated by, we might focus on winning their favour, or outright attack them – in both those cases we are drawing closer to them, probably too close. We might decide to distance ourselves by mocking them, or by talking about them behind their back – in these cases we’re not close enough, we are withdrawing. The irony of withdrawing, putting up walls, distancing is that these behaviours still connect you to someone you are uncomfortable around. They still rent your head-space.
A wise person doesn’t cuddle up close to a difficult person and they don’t withdraw from them either.
One of the big themes that comes through in these Proverbs is trust. Our words build trust. When you are using gossiping words or flattering words, you are eroding the extent to which people will trust you. The difficulty is that saying truthful things is hard. It’s hard not to exaggerate and embellish detail, and it’s hard to tell someone when they are wrong or when they are hurting you or when they are dangerous. The difficulty we saw with Gossiping Greg is that we don’t know if what he is saying is true or just conjecture, and we don’t know what he’ll be saying about us the day after the meeting. He saw a woman fall out of a car and told people she had a drinking problem. People learn not to tell a gossip anything. You are excluded. Flattering Fiona didn’t know how to do truth – she either ignored it and tried to be complimentary, or when she finally told the truth it wasn’t packaged in a way that Cynthia could accept it. Fiona had blown her ability to be a truth teller by continually casting herself in a role of inoffensive niceness.
We need to learn how to say the hard things to someone’s face and with respect for the person we are advising.
These Proverbs warn that certain people won’t hear the truth, and we need to be careful not to be just a talker. The attacking quarreller and the mocker are too busy filling up the air time with their own cleverness or anger that they won’t hear good advice or wise truth. They both think they are right already. One will fight to prove it, and the other will make others look silly to prove it. One thing both of these people will believe is that they are right about an issue, but their behaviour is “playing the man, not the ball”. Both of them distract others from the task or issue. The attacker might think they are championing something that has nothing to do with themselves, but all anyone can concentrate on is their manner – the anger, the accusations, the relentlessness, the stirring that says that it’s personal. Proverbs 9:7,8 says “If you reason with an arrogant cynic, you’ll get slapped in the face; confront bad behaviour and get a kick in the shins. So don’t waste your time on a scoffer; all you’ll get for your pains is abuse.” Cynical Cynthia has no interest in constructive, wise ways – all the mocking is a diversion.
To avoid all of these behaviours, we have two tasks. The first is to include and respect people. It’s impossible to have a healthy relationship with a flatterer, mocker, attacker or gossip. Those behaviours exclude others and deny them a real interaction. So we need to check that when we critique or give hard feedback, we’re focus on changing the problem and welcoming the person.
We need to listen to each others’ experience and feelings, while being truthful and proactive about the topic or situation.
I had a situation where a man had called me because he was hallucinating and urgently told me about the men in the hallway dressed like 1950s CIA agents who had come to check his finances and kick him out of his aged care home. It was important that I acknowledge that he was afraid and uncertain, but was also truthful, asking his wife if she’d seen the men there – of course, she hadn’t. I could have ridiculed him, or I could have gone along with his hallucinations. I could have yelled at him for calling me at a late hour with this stupid stuff. I could have immediately called his friends and had a big gossip fest about how badly he’s declined. None of those things were truth and love together. I was truthful – there was no danger of him being thrown out, all the finances are secure; I was loving – that sounds scary, are you worried? How can I help you feel safe?
Task two is to address our own insecurities and buttons. These are speech behaviours that make us feel wanted, or needed, or strong, or justified, or superior, or included ourselves. The wise person is a person who is comfortable with who they are, able to take feedback and grow, able to discern who is going to be a good advisor, able to expand outside their little bubble to include others without feeling like they’ve just had to shrink and be less of who they are. This is why wisdom comes from God – listening to God say “you’re so loved, so welcome, so blessed, and when you get it wrong, so forgiven”. That voice of God’s love for you needs to be heard stronger than “you don’t belong, you’re not enough, you have to be perfect, you have to prove yourself, you have to be better than others, you have to win”.
We are wise when God’s love trumps our fear of inadequacy.
Looking at Jesus, who spoke truth, saw through flattery, was silent instead of bringing down curses, did not retaliate aggressively, and even on the cross said words of forgiveness and invitation to paradise, we have a model of someone who made excellent speech. We do well to look to him to know how to deal with Fionas, Gregs, Cynthias and Allans, and to avoid becoming them.
Want to reflect more on the scripture passages in Proverbs about speech? Here's a resource you can download.