How to Say What You Mean

Although I do plan these blog posts in advance, they rarely wind up saying the things that I thought they would say when I first planned them.

This is due in part to my being an extrovert. 

One of the interesting aspects of being an extrovert is that we must articulate our thoughts in order to process them rather than the other way around. As I've previously noted, this half-baked verbal processing often makes extroverts sound like idiots, especially to those of you who are actually capable of processing your thoughts before speaking, a procedure which sounds quite logical and handy. I yearn to acquire this skill, but although I've worked on tactics to help myself process before speaking, I still remain an externally-processing human, meaning that I'm never fully sure what I'm going to say until it's out.

Hence my blog posts occasionally seeming to spool out of my direct control. (Such as this one, which keeps trying to loop into a weird, Dr.-Walter-Bishop-type digression in which there are lots of decision trees and in which I explore the possibility of parallel universes into which each unfinished conversational thread floats when it is abandoned in favor of another branch. But I will spare you because it would do very little for the point at hand, and also because it didn't entirely make sense and it also made me sound a little crazy.) 

In discussing my problem with a friend today--the problem of staying on track while writing blog posts, I mean, not the problem of occasionally sounding like Walter Bishop--I started to think about the limitations of communication and about how difficult it is for us to say what we really mean. 

I'm sure you, like me, have occasionally found yourself walking away from a conversation wondering why you had so much difficulty saying what you wanted to say and echoing that woman from TS Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the woman who said, "That's not what I meant at all; / That is not it at all."

If you can identify with that sentiment, read on. 

There's hope.

How to Say What You Mean:

First, stop talking so much. If you want to be sure that you say what you mean every time you speak, perhaps you should consider talking less. Statistically, this should significantly lessen the number of times you accidentally say stupid things, misspeak, or just generally make a buffoon of yourself. Shutting your mouth for a while also gives your brain time to catch up with the conversation, meaning that when you finally do speak, you'll be more likely to say what you actually mean.

Second, employ a mental checklist. When I taught middle school, I told my students that they weren't permitted to say anything that didn't pass the following series of questions:

Is it right?
Is it kind?
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it helpful?
Does it need to be said by me?
Does it need to be said right now?

This list wouldn't be a bad idea for the rest of us to adopt, although depending on your own particular foibles, you might need to add additional questions, such as Will it make sense to anybody other than me? or Will this add anything of substance to the conversation, or am I just speaking to fill a silence? 

For those of you who say, "But Ruth! If I try to think about all of those things before I open my mouth, I'll never get a chance to say anything. By the time I've figured out if something matches the checklist, the conversation will have passed me by!" 

If that's worrying you, go back and re-read the first point.

Third, always maintain a balance of kindness and honesty. I've never been a huge fan of indirect communication, although I learned to appreciate the art when I lived in Asia. While I acknowledge that indirect speech does have a place, I still believe that saying what you mean as directly as possible seems to work best most of the time. Rather than getting lost in a morass of hints or a confused forest of circumlocutions, ask for grace to speak plainly and to the purpose, always balancing your truth with kindness. 

Fourth, be sure you're talking to the right person. Many of us, if we're having a problem with Person A, will talk to everyone but him about it. Even if we do plan to talk to Person A directly, we will first talk to Persons B, C, and D, no doubt seeking to be assured that we are in the right and that Person A is in the wrong. 

This is ridiculous. 

If we have a problem with Person A, our first course of action (after praying for grace) should be to talk to Person A directly. Although there may come a time to get Persons B-D involved, that time is certainly not before you've had a chance to talk (honestly and kindly) with Person A.

Let me close by saying that life, while being generally awesome, can also feel long and hard and full of difficulty. Don't be the one adding to the drama. Keep your mouth shut, employ a mental checklist, balance honesty with kindness, and ensure that you're addressing your problems to the right person. 

And while I'm on my soapbox, let me add this one last thought: as you're blazing through life spouting your thoughts and opinions to anyone who will hold still long enough to listen, remember that there are certain phrases that should not be left unspoken, should not be taken for granted, and cannot be said too often:

  • I love you.
  • I miss you.
  • I appreciate you. 
  • You matter to me.
  • I value your friendship.
  • You're amazing because [x].

Remember that part of saying what you mean involves actually saying it. So if any of these phrases make you think of someone in particular, don't waste time. 

Make a call, type a text, write a letter, send up a smoke signal, tap it out in Morse code, hire a carrier pigeon, set it to music, take out an ad in the newspaper, write it in the sky, or run to your friend's house and shout it directly into his face.

As previously mentioned, life can sometimes feel long and hard and full of difficulty, and it helps to hear something nice.

So if you mean it, go ahead and say it.


  1. I really enjoyed this post! Thanks for sharing!

    1. My pleasure. Feel free to read along and chime in any time.


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