Three Questions to Filter Your Words With

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A filter is any device that removes unwanted material. For example, an oil filter for a car lets the good oil pass through while blocking the crud and removing impurities. The muck and guck are detrimental to the engine and undermine the effectiveness of the motor. Some of us need a filter on our speech when we communicate. When we lack a filter we undermine our effectiveness in communicating with people, whether those are family and friends, coworkers and neighbors, or acquaintances and strangers.

What is this filter? It consists of asking three questions before communicating in person, over the phone, or in writing.

  - Is that which I’m about to say true?

  - Is it kind?

  - Is it necessary?

When we do not ask these three questions, we oftentimes end up saying something that is untrue, unkind, or unnecessary. This is comparable to letting the muck and guck pass with no filter.

In the Bible we learn that we are to speak the truth in love, and there is a time to speak and a time not to speak. Speaking necessary truth in a kind way is basic to all communication between people.

We also have an eternal motive to filter our words. Jesus said in Matthew 12:36, "But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” Our useless and empty comments do not slip by the heart of our heavenly Father.

Communication consists of informing, affecting, or persuading. By that I mean, we inform the mind, which we might call the FYI. We affect the emotions, or affect the affections. This is the heart-to-heart sharing. And the final reason to communicate is to persuade the will, which we might refer to as the sale’s pitch or action item. In other words, we are trying to influence the other to do something.

Let me give some examples of people who did not filter their statements. I want you to see what they did right but also where they erred.  

How do you evaluate this FYI e-mail to Bob, a family member?

“Bob, this is Sandi. Thanks for your question about Christmas gifts. For the Christmas gift list, we drew Aunt Lizzy for you when we picked the names from a hat. This year we are spending $100 on each family member. I am sure she’ll enjoy anything you give to her since she adores you. You cannot miss with her since she thinks you are the cat’s meow. However, between you and me, she lives up to her name, “Two-ton Lizzy.” I don’t recommend trying to get her any clothing unless you are looking for tarps. Just kidding! Have a great Christmas, Bob, and I look forward to seeing you. Thanks.”

I evaluate the e-mail as fine until she inserted her commentary about Aunt Lizzy’s dress size. That was unkind and unnecessary. Though she sought to be funny, what would Sandi feel if Aunt Lizzy were accidentally copied on that e-mail? What if she accidentally pushed “reply all” and Aunt Lizzy received that note? If Sandi had asked a filter question of “Is this true, kind, and necessary?” she would have deleted those remarks before hitting send. Getting a cheap laugh at another’s expense is never worth it. In today’s e-mail world never assume information is absolutely private. Use a filter: always.

How do you evaluate this phone call addressing a coworker’s feelings?

“Hi Jackie, Arnold here. I hope you get this voice message today. I feel badly that you did not receive the promotion. Several in the office reported to me that your supervisor declined to advance you. That’s a bummer. I hurt for you and wanted you to know. At the same time I am hopeful that something unexpectedly good comes from this. Though I have always received my promotions, I did so because I had good bosses, unlike in your situation with Craig Canfield who in my opinion is an idiot. The guy is a pain, and everybody knows it. He treats people unfairly. I mean, maybe you didn’t deserve the promotion—I don’t know—but I predict Canfield’s incompetence is behind this. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you."

The voice message is solid up to a point, but then there is no filter. It is not necessary, kind, or true to call Canfield an idiot. It is not necessary or kind to talk about one’s own promotions in light of Jackie not getting a promotion. And what’s the point of saying, “maybe you didn’t deserve the promotion”? That comment may be honest but Jackie does not need to hear this right now.

How do you evaluate this persuasive face-to-face communication with a stranger?

Arriving at the courthouse to fill out a form to carry a concealed weapon, David says to the female clerk, “Is there any way you could do me a huge favor? I made a mistake in not knowing when the police department closed today, and I need to fill out certain forms in your office before I go to the police department to take my fingerprints for a concealed weapon. Is there any way you can help me? I am stupid for not paying attention to the office hours of the police station and I drove a half hour to get here. If you cannot help me, that’s understandable. This isn’t your problem but one I am creating for you.” The female clerk responds, “Well, let’s see if I can help you in time.” She hurries the process so David can get to the police station in time. As he is about to leave the office, David says, “You are so much nicer than your co-worker who told me over the phone, ‘No, not today in light of your time crunch. We cannot get this done but can help you tomorrow.’ So many government workers have a 'cannot do' attitude." The clerk responds, “Well, that would be Sally to whom you refer and her mother died this week so she has been distracted. I hope you understand. She is probably the best worker in this office, helping people with their emergencies more than I do."

This interaction evidences great wisdom in David early on as he makes his appeal for help. He is winsome and empathetic. But he turns a corner and slams Sally to her peer. What he ends up saying is not true, kind, or necessary. Some people have the attitude that if they won’t see a person again, they have license to say whatever they want. But what goes around, comes around.

The consequences of one’s actions have to be dealt with eventually. There is no such thing as careless words. In this case, the female clerk ends up sitting next to David at church the next Sunday, and he discovers she is the pastor’s sister. So much for David getting elected to the deacon board. Not this year.

Let’s consider other examples.

What about this persuasive phone conversation to a family member?

An adult son says over the phone, “Mom and Dad, my sophomore year at college is going well. But I think I will need some extra help financially.” Dad replies, “Jason, we are at our limits so can’t help you anymore than we have already. I feel badly but we cannot do more at this time. I am truly sorry.” Jason retorts in an enraged manner, “You helped Kelli when she was in college. You have always favored her and could care less about me.” He hangs up on them.

What about this FYI face-to-face interaction with a coworker?

“Annette, thanks for meeting with me in my office. As your supervisor I need to tell you that we are cutting back on various positions. Unfortunately, we need to abolish your job during this season in our company and reassign your duties to others. We have to tighten the belt. We do have another option. You can relocate to another state with the company but at a reduced salary. Between you and me, this sucks. I wish we could keep you but there is no other way. This is the boss’s idea, contrary to my desires.” Several months later it comes out among other workers, including Annette, that the boss would have kept Annette for another year but this supervisor saw this as an opportunity to transition her out of his department. Morale in the office sunk to an all-time low.

What about this e-mail to an acquaintance related to an emotional issue?

The local cleaner at the laundry dies. Sam, a customer, writes a card of condolence to the new widow. “Dear Margaret, I wanted to express my sorrow over the loss of your husband. Though I did not know him, other than our brief greetings as I entered the store, many spoke highly of his service. Though he had a few run-ins with customers over the years, as I heard on the grapevine, surely they misjudged him. That does not reflect my experience with his wonderful treatment. Even so, we hurt with you. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. If there's anything I can do for you, please let me know."

What about this face-to-face interaction with a close friend on an emotional matter?

Roberto has been dating Elaine for several weeks. He is falling in love with her, but she is light-years away from seeing him as “the one.” Roberto said over dinner, “I believe you are the one God intends for me to marry. Some say you cannot fall in love at first sight but I don’t agree.” She responds, “Roberto, this is premature. Besides, if God told you this, He should have told me also, and He has not. I appreciate your interest but let’s slow down.” Roberto feels a bit put down and says under his breath, which Elaine clearly hears, “Well, you aren’t listening to God."

What about this persuasive text to a neighbor?

“Hi Al, I hope all is well with you. Hey, a quick comment. I don’t know if you are aware of it but your dog, Lucky, has been running the neighborhood while you are at work. Because kids are home for the summer, some of the neighbors fear Lucky may hurt their younger children as he comes leaping and bounding with excitement. At eighty pounds he is monstrous and could knock them down. I called the police and dog pound. They told me to contact you first but then proceed with litigation if you are unresponsive. Thanks for understanding. I do need to add that one family is irate. I just hope Lucky doesn’t show up missing. I look forward to your help."

What about phoning an acquaintance, in this case a customer, with information about a product?

“Mr. Bright, this is Toby Jackson with Men’s Apparel. Your dress shoes that had a defect will be replaced. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we won’t get them in for two more weeks. Unfortunately, we cannot meet your request to have those shoes for your daughter’s wedding next week.” Mr. Bright replies, “I can’t believe this. I purchased those shoes with the assurance that I would have them for the wedding. Who dropped the ball here? You told me that I would have them. Let me talk to the manager.” Toby reacts, “I am the new manager on this shift. The information won’t change.” Mr. Bright comments, “Well, this makes it tough for me, and certainly discourages me from doing business with you in the future.” Toby reacts, “Fine. We are trying our best. I just hope you appreciate that I am not telling you to take your shoes and run them up your flagpole.” The owner of the store overheard Toby and fired him on the spot.

Why do some not have a filter on their words?

The answer is simple. They do not ask the three foundational questions before communicating:

- Is this true?

- Is this kind?

- Is this necessary?

If these three are aligned, then by all means available, communicate with the other person.

But be warned. Without the filter one will fail to ask, “Am I prone to add a comment that is:

Untrue?

Unkind?

Unnecessary?"

Like an oil filter on a car, this mental filter removes the impurities from our communications. With a filter, life operates so much more smoothly, not to suggest we won’t have to give an account before our heavenly Father for our careless, useless, and empty words.

Answer 1 or More of These Questions (Identify the Question)

  1. How does lacking a filter on our words undermine our effectiveness in communicating with other people?

  2. Why should we be so concerned with not saying anything that is untrue? Unkind? Unnecessary?

  3. What does “speaking the truth in love” mean to you?

  4. What does it mean to you when the Bible says there is a time to speak and a time not to speak?

  5. How do you personally discern whether you are in the place and time to speak a truth that may not be received well?

  6. How might remembering Jesus’ warning in Matthew 12:36 about being held accountable for our careless words affect how you speak to others?

  7. In the example from Sandi, why were her comments about Aunt Lizzy’s dress size wrong to make, though they were true?

  8. In the example from Arnold, why would Jackie most likely not appreciate Arnold’s comments about his own promotions?

  9. In the example from David, how could he have better expressed his appreciation for the helpful clerk without comparing her to her coworker he spoke with earlier?

-Dr. E