The charity that I work for has recently said goodbye to the Chief Executive who we’ve had for the last ten years. At his final staff conference during the summer, several senior members of staff paid tribute to him and something that one of them said really challenged me.
He talked of how Matthew would respond to any negative talk with the question, “How would things be different if you said that in a way that brought life?”
I immediately recognise times when I have responded too quickly, been overly critical, judgemental, sarcastic or simply discouraging. I remember the times when I have back-tracked, apologised or felt great regret over words that I have spoken, knowing that they have brought anything but life.
Proverbs 15 v 4 says, “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”
I know that I have crushed more than a few spirits in my time, through my careless words or ill-chosen sentiments. And I can recall what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those responses from others.
The thing that I find interesting about Matthew’s challenge however, is the suggestion that we can say all manner of things that need to be said, can speak honestly and tell the truth in difficult circumstances, but still do it in a way that allows people to flourish rather than fade. This isn’t about us all simply saying nice things to each other while thinking something entirely different, nor is it about being hypocritical. It’s an opportunity for me to bring out the best in someone with what I say, a chance for them to see things from a wider perspective, not just come around to my point of view. It’s about me taking a few moments (or even longer) before I speak and asking God how he would have me respond – taking that time to stand in the other person’s shoes and ask myself, “If I was about to hear this, how would I want it to be said?”
As a native of Northern Ireland living in Scotland, I think this is something we Celts particularly need to hear. We love a bit of banter, but it often takes the form of putting someone down. We may well claim that it’s all in jest, but it begins to form a wider culture around how we speak to people, and about them, which has more than a tinge of negativity about it.
Negativity doesn’t bring life. Instead it breeds disillusionment, discouragement, fear and self-doubt. Rather than spurring someone on to better, it makes them shrink back, second guess or even stop. It makes everyone just that bit smaller.
What if, instead, we spoke words that brought life?
Rather than disagreeing with disdain, we instead offered a different approach? As opposed to shouting someone down for the things we don’t like, we spoke only of what we appreciated in them? Rather than tearing down a person’s plans, we contributed to build something stronger and better?
I wonder what ideas are out there that have never seen the light of day because someone was put down as they began to offer it? What answers have been left unspoken because a negative environment closed down all possibility of them being breathed into life? What creativity has remained untapped because someone was told that they couldn’t, shouldn’t step forward?
The world needs every good idea it can get hold of. The people with those ideas will probably have a dozen terrible plans before then come up with the answer that works. What if they’ve become so disheartened by the response to their first twelve suggestions that they never reach the magic number 13? What if they’ve been made to feel foolish for opening their mouths? Or worse, in our Celtic eyes, become a little too precocious in their plans and schemes and so need bringing down a peg or two? Perhaps, having been brought down, they don’t climb back up. The world doesn’t ever see them shine.
Either way, we all lose.
Today, let’s find a way to harness the best of people and what they offer. Let’s disagree with grace and understanding .
Can we open our minds to hear and entertain opinions we don’t think we’ll like? Can we seek out the nugget of possibility in what’s shared and fan it into the flame of potential?
Today, can we listen and then speak in a way that brings life?
(**Thank you Matthew, for the challenge!)