Adam Robinson said in a podcast episode titled, How Not to Be Stupid, that stupidity is not the opposite of intelligence; it is the cost of intelligence operating in a complex environment.1
Experience and skills are no match for how swiftly stress can hijack your mouth. Forced changes and life disruptions sabotage your good intentions.
Many of my coaching clients have shifted from feeling intense fear last year to misdirected anger now. They hear themselves saying stupid things often laced with contempt.2 They know they aren’t being a good leader, coach, parent, or friend, but they lose access to their good sense.
When frustration and rage hijack the brain, we say stupid things we would never say if life felt more predictable. Like a panic attack, stress takes over and triggers impatience. The chaos in our lives may not subside for a while, if ever.
Managing your mind will help those you are with better claim their thoughts and modify their statements. Don’t wait until things calm down to take back control of your mind.
Speaking Before You Think
Stress limits cognitive functioning as well as overproducing the toxic hormone, cortisol, causing depression, irritability, and weight gain, among other distressing conditions.3 Your ability to think straight is compromised, which further frustrates you. Your patience is tapped out. Your perspective is limited. You blurt out what first comes to mind. Examples include:
- “What are you talking about?”
- “Last week you said this. Now you say this. Do you remember what you said””
- I don’t need the details. Just tell me what you want.”
- “You don’t honestly believe that, do you?”
- “Hmm…” (coming from your judgy face followed by silence).
No one likes to feel belittled or wrong. They may get defensive or just shut down. You could even damage a relationship by the tone of your voice.
I’m not saying you should analyze your words before you speak. In fact, your impact depends more on the emotions you feel and knowing how you want the conversation to end than on the sounds coming from your mouth. You don’t have to be brilliant but they won’t walk away calling you an idiot if they feel you genuinely care about the interaction.
Making or Breaking a Sense of Safety
When you impatiently react to what people say, they don’t feel safe with you. They limit what they share with you so they don’t get smacked down again. Whether they retreat with fear or respond defensively, the outcome of your conversation won’t be satisfying.
Your emotions are powerful. You must be aware of tension in your body to better control your mind. If you recognize your irritation or inattentiveness, you might be able to relax and regain control before you speak.
First, remind yourself of who this person is that you are speaking to and what they most want from the conversation right now. If you find yourself judging them, wanting to scold them, or just wanting to be somewhere else, can you sit back in your chair and see them as a worthwhile human trying to find their way on their path? What will it take for you to feel generous?
Then follow these 5 steps for managing your mouth when you speak:
- Soften your eyes and open your heart before letting words leave your lips. This puts you in WE instead of ME space.
- Slow down. Drink some air before you speak. Let your brain catch up with your mouth.
- Notice points of tension in your body. Breathe into that part of your body to release the tension before you speak.
- Make sure your words match your gestures. The emotions you express have more of an impact than the words you choose.
- Temper your honesty with tact. Tell your truth with compassion. Be kind, not cruel.
Manage Your Energy
Your ability to manage your reactions is hurt by sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, noise pollution, excessive conflict, and a lack of contact with friends. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will have a difficult time being careful with others.
Take mental breaks—five minutes or more—throughout the day. Let go of your thoughts. Move your body. Detach from the world as best as you can. Maybe read a few pages of fiction or poetry, or be with the trees or plants nearby. Ride the wave of lightness as long as you can before going back to your responsibilities.
Take care with your conversations. We humans are social animals—we survive through healthy relationships which thrive with thoughtful communication. You don’t have to analyze your thoughts, but being present, mindful, and caring will help you better manage what comes out of your mouth.4
1 Carol Kauffman, Without Compassion, Resilient Leaders Will Fall Short, Harvard Business Review, August 21, 2020.
2 Adam Robinson, Winning at the Great Game, podcast with The Knowledge Project (Part 1) Dec 11, 2018.
3 Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Carrie Lam, MD; Jeremy Lam, MD. Signs and Symptoms: Irritability and Adrenal Fatigue, posted on Dr. Lam Coaching, 2016.
4 Marcia Reynolds, Outsmart Your Brain: How to Manage Your Mind When Emotions Take the Wheel, 2nd Edition. Covisioning, August 31, 2017.