It’s Not What You Say but How You Say It

Like me, I’m sure you’ve heard it dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Like me, you might have even said it yourself. You know the phrase – “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

Like me, you might have been flat-out wrong.

Because I have learned over these life years and married years that it is BOTH. It is what you say, and it is how you say it!

Some might still agree with that original declaration – not what you say but how you say it. Yes, certainly the way the question is asked or the comment is made (the “how”) can be the set-up to the squabble.

My mother told me long ago, and it rings true to this day, that “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Although I don’t have any interest in catching flies, she’s right! You can win a person to your side far more easily with kind words and gentle persuasion than you can with a harsh, battle-ready tone of voice. Rudeness is a huge turnoff in any relationship.

Proverbs 15:1 says it well: A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

A friend of ours was very ill recently and passed out at her home. Upon discovering her face down on the floor, her concerned husband hurriedly called the ambulance to pick her up and transport her to the emergency room. The doctors later determined that she had been suffering from flu and dehydration. Thankfully, she is on the road to recovery now.

Their marriage has been a rocky road for years and they don’t communicate well with one another.

After she returned home from the hospital that next day, she and her husband had a sharp exchange. In the heat of “battle,” he told her, “The next time, I’ll just leave you on the floor.”

In that case, it is clearly what he said and how he said it. Equally wrong, offensive, and hurtful.

He later apologized for getting caught up in a bad moment. I’m glad he did and he should have, but his words did damage. An apology after causing a broken arm may be wholly appropriate and appreciated - but that arm is still broken.

In our quarter-century of marriage, Vanessa and I have learned to be mindful of the power of our words. We have both been blessed by the words we have spoken to one another, and we have both had to come back and say “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry – so hard for some folks but two of the most important words in the marriage lexicon. Actually, in the life lexicon. Outside of the Lord Jesus, who hasn’t been guilty of saying something that they wished they could take back?

Don’t get me wrong – nonverbal communication – how you say it – is extremely important. It matters a lot. Have you ever been talking to someone – a spouse, a friend, a boss, an employee, a child – who was “listening” to you but not really hearing a word you said? Someone who was glued to their phone, glued to the television, glued to the video game, looking away, clearly distracted by something else or simply uninterested in what you were saying.

I sure have. And I have also been guilty of being a non-listening listener.

Your nonverbals - the way you listen, your reactions to what’s being said - tell the person you’re communicating with whether or not you are really interested in what they are saying. A nod, a laugh of agreement, a hand on the shoulder, or a sympathetic touch - all of these can be affirming gestures.

Conversely, when you’re talking to them, your nonverbal signals – eye contact, body language, and more – can increase the rapport between the two of you.

There are researchers who say that how you say something matters far more that what you say.

I don’t have a research degree, but I do have a degree from the University of Life and to those researchers I say be careful with that one. What you say matters greatly! At the University of Life, I have gone through (and failed) several courses in the School of Hard Knocks. Words matter - they matter a lot.

It’s not only what you say, and how you say it, but the “who” also factors into this! Who’s saying it?

If Vanessa told me I needed to take a shower as opposed to a stranger who yelled it to me from a distance, there’s no contest as to who would get my attention and have me reaching for the soap and a washcloth. Status in my life matters with regard to the input received.

Proverbs 18:21 tells us this: Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.

Colossians 4:6 says: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

It’s not only what you say, but it is how you say it. God has given us the power to talk. And hard conversations are necessary at times but let’s check ourselves and endeavor to speak words seasoned with grace. Remember – it is what you say, and it is how you say it.

1 comment

  • This is a topic that for me is one that I hear a lot. When I say things I have to remind myself of the “tone” of my voice. Also it is the looks on my face that play an important role on how something I say is received. What a great topic this was!


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