Say a Good Word

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So, is it worth ten bucks to break the habit of making destructive comments about other people?

Marshall Goldsmith thought so. 

Which is why he chose to put his money where his mouth had gone all too often. 

Verbal put-downs and destructive witticisms aren’t just the hallmarks of seventh grade boys.  Most contemporary American sitcoms roll out never-ending repartees of sarcasm and cutting remarks.  TV trailers for upcoming episodes feature the edgiest verbal grenades – appealing to us to set our DVRs so we don’t miss a single gotcha moment. 

Unsurprisingly, many workplaces and family rooms have become the domain of negative humor and personal put-downs.  And it’s a hard habit to break.

I know that all too well.  For years I’ve been aware of the fact that my words can damage other people.  I try to coach myself daily:  “Positive humor, positive comments about other people.”  But in the moment – when you think of that snappy retort that you just can’t keep to yourself – it’s as if I’m right back in seventh grade. 

Goldsmith writes, in his bestseller What Got You Here Won’t Get You There:  “We make destructive comments without thinking – and therefore without noticing or remembering.  But the objects of our scorn remember.  Press them and they will accurately replay every biting comment we’ve made at their expense.”

Goldsmith quickly learned that he himself was not immune to this reality.  When he asked for the feedback of his own associates, they pointed out that he made destructive comments all the time. 

“This was a problem for me as a manager.  In an environment where everyone’s preaching the value of teamwork and reaching out in the organization, what happens to the quality of teamwork and cooperation when we stab our coworkers in the back in front of other people?”

So he came up with a plan.  He even gave himself a financial incentive:

“If you ever hear me make another destructive comment about another person,” Goldsmith told his team, “I’ll pay you $10 each time you bring it to my attention.  I’m going to break this habit.’

Goldsmith encouraged them not to hold back.  “Turns out it wasn’t necessary.  In fact, they would trick me into making nasty comments because they wanted the $10.  They’d mention the names of people guaranteed to bring up some bile – and I took the bait each time.  They mentioned a colleague named Max and I said, ‘Can you believe he has a Ph.D.?  He has no idea what he’s talking about.’  Ten bucks.”

By noon on the first day, Goldsmith was down $50.  He locked himself in his office and refused to speak to anyone the rest of the day. 

Hiding wouldn’t solve the issue, of course, but the financial pain had at least helped change his thinking.  The next day his put-downs cost him $30.  The third day, just $10.

Goldsmith reports that the policy stayed in place in his office for several weeks.  The quality of his speech radically improved.  He reflects: “My experience proves a simple point:  Spend a few thousand dollars and you will get better!”

The apostle Paul nails it: 

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

In other words, you can be funny.  And you can be clever.  You can make a snappy remark at someone else’s expense and try to get a laugh.    

Or you can speak a simple word of encouragement – a life-giving blessing that someone might still be savoring years from now.    

That may not get you a part on a sitcom. 

But it’s a good bet your life will turn out to be richer – in several senses of the word.