When To Speak… and When To Not

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

“I begin to speak,” Cato once explained, “only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.”
~Lives of the Stoics, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

Some people do a whole lot of talking. And in doing so, they don’t really add a lot to the conversation. I think the first time I really experienced this in a noticeable way was when I was in college.

As a Religion major, one of my requirements was a fair amount of philosophy courses. I think I ended up taking 4–5 when it was all said and done. As you can imagine from my previous writings, philosophy is something that has interested me through the years. But what’s crazy about a philosophy class in college is this is the time when a lot of people are testing out ideas for the first time. And the way some people do that is by verbally processing it.

Personally, I’m not a verbal processor. In fact, there’s a good chance that if I’m in a meeting that I’m not leading or I don’t have to present anything, I’m not going to say a whole lot. I tend to sit off to the side and take it all in. I take copious notes at whatever meeting I’m sitting in, and only occasionally say something. Not all people are like that.

There have been several times, in philosophy classes, in religion classes, in meetings, in informal conversations, where people seem like they are just talking for the sake of talking. People are afraid of silence, and I get it. Silence can be awkward. Some people would rather fill the space with noise than sit in the silence.

But what if more people were intentional about… you know… thinking before they spoke?

Too often, we say things that are better left unsaid. And, because we aren’t comfortable with silence, we often say these things at horribly inappropriate times. Typically when people are dealing with loss in their lives.

In the Old Testament book of Job, the titular character loses just about everything in the first chapter and a half of the book. His family, his livestock, even his health takes a major hit. At the end of the second chapter, three of his friends come to see him. When they see the condition he is in, they tear their clothes, cover their heads in dust, and just sit with him. For seven days, they don’t say a word. And if the story ended right there, it would be great. It would be a touching tale of genuine care.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. And his friends start this conversation about how these terrible things happened to him because he sinned in some way. It just goes downhill from there.

But in those first seven days, there was silence. And it was good.

We don’t have to speak to make things better. So, like Cato, if you’re going to speak, make sure it isn’t better off being left unsaid first.

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