The 7 Deadly Sins of Speaking

Michael Thompson

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In 1938, researchers at Harvard University set out to identify the key factors that most contributed to leading long and happy lives. As the study has evolved and expanded to include individuals from more diverse backgrounds, the findings over the years have remained the same: more than money, fame, IQ, or even genes, close relationships and community involvement are the key indicators in keeping people both happy and healthy throughout their lives.

If you’re anything like me, the idea that the quality of our lives is a direct reflection of the quality of our relationships doesn’t come as much of a surprise. No matter our background, culture, social class, or ethnicity, we all want to feel like we belong and a massive part of this comes down to how well we navigate our daily conversations.

What we say obviously matters. The same goes for how we say it. The older I get, however, the more I’m beginning to think that what we choose not to say is of equal or greater importance. After all, when it comes to what we like to hear, our tastes vary. But when it comes to things we don’t like to hear, we’re oddly similar.

In his viral TED Talk that has been seen close to 45 million times, Julian Treasure shares some ideas for how we can be better heard. He kicked off his talk with common pitfalls people make in their conversations — something he refers to as the “7 Deadly Sins of Speaking.” Below are Julian’s findings along with a few suggestions I’ve been thinking about regarding how to not make these mistakes.

Deadly Sin of Speaking #1 — Gossip

“Did you hear about what Sean did? He’s completely lost it!”
“You’re not going to believe what I heard about Megan!”

We all know we shouldn’t trash someone behind their back. Despite this, we’ve all been guilty of doing it in the past or know someone who’s mastered this all-too-common art.

But here’s some science to possibly scare you straight. According to a phenomenon known as “spontaneous trait reference,” researchers discovered the way you talk about other people is the way people see you too. In short, if you say Dick’s an idiot, the odds are high people are going to think you aren’t too smart either.

Fortunately, spontaneous trait reference swings both ways. So if you want people to speak highly of you, talk up other people.

The next time you feel the urge to gossip, remind yourself of this, and before speaking, think about the following questions:

  • Is what I’m about to share true?
  • Is what I’m about to share kind?
  • Is what I’m about to share useful?

A good rule of thumb is if you’re still in doubt, leave your words out. There are only a few instances when not saying something is the wrong move. Gossiping is not one of them.

Deadly Sin of Speaking #2— Judging

From physical appearance and someone’s taste in clothes to their social habits and perceived values, judging people comes in many shapes and sizes. But much like gossiping, passing judgment on others says more about you than it does the person you’re sizing up.

According to Robin Dreeke, former FBI behavioral expert and author of “The Code of Trust,” the moment you pass judgment on someone is the moment you begin to lose them.

Asking yourself “What can I learn from this person that I don’t already know?” is a good place to start. The same goes for breaking out a piece of paper and writing down all the times you personally felt judged and the times you labeled someone incorrectly, so you’re more open-minded about people who are different than you.

We keep lists to stay productive. If relationships truly are the most important thing in our lives, it only makes sense to do the same in order to get them right too.

Deadly Sin of Speaking #3 — Negativity

During his talk, Julian shared a story about his mother who had become very negative towards the end of her life. At one point, Julian simply said, “It’s October first today!” and his mother replied, “I know, isn’t it dreadful!”

We can all be negative on occasion. But if given the choice, I’d be willing to bet my baseball card collection 99 percent of people would rather spend time with positive people over those whose words drag us down.

Keeping a journal of all the things you’re thankful for can help with this. The same goes for starting a Holy Shit Jar and developing the habit of reminding yourself to start conversations on a positive note. Asking the question “What’s good?” in an upbeat tone instead of resorting to the standard greeting of “What’s up?” is an easy way to steer conversations in a more positive direction.

Funny. Confident. Caring. Thoughtful. We use a tone of adjectives to describe people we like. All of these traits at their core, however, are based on one quality: positivity. And unlike many things in our lives, the attitude we choose to bring into our conversations is completely under our control.

Deadly Sin of Speaking #4 — Complaining

The average person complains between 15 to 30 times a day, according to Will Bowen, the author of The Complaint-Free World. Complaining is normal — we’re emotional creatures, and especially these days as the world has given us a lot to gripe about. Some research even suggests complaining can actually be a useful tool for bonding with others and processing emotions.

Much like negativity, however, too much of it can be a massive turn-off. When it comes to having meaningful conversations, the last thing you want to do is build a reputation of always seeing the worst around you.

To break this habit, give a few of these exercises a shot:

  • Track your complaints for a day to see how much you’re doing it.
  • Identify which type of complainer you are — a chronic complainer, a venter, or an instrumental complainer.
  • After you complain, make a habit of saying these simple words — “And here’s what I’m going to do about it!”
  • Take a “Complaint Break” a few times a week to unload the evils of the world all at once to free up some headspace.
  • Replace your complaints with good deeds. Doing something nice for someone you care about when you think the world is wronging you may very well be the ultimate life hack.

If you see someone’s posture and attention continue to drop during a conversation, it’s a good sign it’s time to change direction. Most people don’t want to spend time with people who consistently drain their energy.

Deadly Sin of Speaking #5— Excuses

“It’s not my fault!”
“I’m not talented enough!”
“I’m too old!”

Excuses are easy to say but they’re hard to listen to. Have you ever wanted to invest your time into someone who repeatedly makes excuses for why life isn’t going their way or points fingers at others for their own shortcomings?

Taking responsibility for your actions is a super attractive quality. The same goes for being a forward-thinking conversationalist who thinks of what’s possible instead of getting paralyzed with how unfair the world is.

The next time you make a mistake, ask the people who you’ve affected if they’re okay, apologize, do what you can to make it right if possible and then bury the worry. This recipe may sound overly basic. But it beats the hell out of drowning yourself with excuses.

After all, trust isn’t only built by getting things right. It’s also earned by learning how to respond when things go wrong.

Deadly Sin of Speaking #6 — Lying

“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple effect with no logical end.” Scott Adams, the author of the Dilbert comics said that, and when it comes to telling lies, the same logic applies.

Like many of the points in Julian’s list, lies come in many shapes and sizes. There are the obvious big ones to the slight exaggerations we tell others to make ourselves look a little cooler than we really are or look like less of an ass than we really are. You don’t ever want people thinking that what you say doesn’t add.

The next time you find yourself on the verge of telling a lie, remind yourself they have a funny way of growing legs of their own.

Colin Powell said that trust is the essence of leadership. It’s also the foundation of all great relationships. And a massive part of this comes down to embracing honesty and being a person of integrity.

Deadly Sin of Speaking #7 — Dogmatism

Dogmatism means you have a tendency to lay down principles as undeniably true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others. In short, it means you’re being close-minded and you struggle to understand new ideas.

Collaboration. Teamwork. Innovation. Growth. All of these seriously important concepts rely heavily on your ability to be open-minded and suspend your ego so you can better learn how other people see the world.

  • “I’ve never thought of it that way. That’s interesting. Please, tell me more.”
  • “Oh, that’s really cool. Help me understand. How did you come up with that?”
  • “I’m not sure I agree. But I’d love to learn more about your thought process as your words really got me thinking.”

These phrases are the key to interesting conversations as they make people feel validated while positioning yourself as someone who is eager to learn about new ideas and ways of doing things.

Old dogs that refuse to learn new tricks die lonely. Nobody wants to hang out with someone who thinks that their way is the only way.

Pulling all the deadly sins together

Like a lot of conversation and relationship advice, I can’t help but think Julian’s suggestions come down to embracing two major themes: bring a positive attitude to each conversation and developing the self-discipline to shut up and listen so we can learn about the people around us.

So remember — don’t gossip, judge, be overly negative, complain, lie, give excuses, and be close-minded.

Not doing the things Julian recommends, doesn’t automatically make you a good conversationalist and someone people want to spend time with.

But they sure help.

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Co-creator of two little boys with the woman of my dreams. Career coach and writer. Featured in Business Insider, Fast Co., Forbes, MSN.

New York, NY
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