Although ships are large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder… Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.” (James 3: 4-5)
As Christians, we are called to speak in ways that honor the Lord. As Christians in the workplace, we can encounter some unique challenges in this area.
I work with a small team of analysts; daily cooperation with a neighboring office is uniquely vital to the success of my team’s work. When I first began my job, I immediately noticed an air of mistrust and negativity between my office and the other. Apparently, this culture of negativity had existed for a long time and was now simply the status quo.
Consistent with this culture, my team habitually used negative speech regarding members of the other office. This speech colored our view of them and overshadowed our interactions. Those interactions fueled more damaging speech and perpetuated a pattern of negativity that impeded our ability to cooperate. Our ship was being steered by the wrong rudder.
I felt discouraged and powerless in my ability to help bring Christ to the situation. As the newest person on my team, I was insecure about drawing attention to myself by being too explicit in my approach to speak more positively. “What if they think that I’m patronizing them? What if they think I’m a ‘holier-than-thou Christian’ and it turns them off from the Lord?” My solution was to keep quiet – I didn’t actively participate in the negativity, but I didn’t do anything to make things better either.
Things changed when my team began to unkindly single out members of the other office. I finally got up the courage to ask the Lord to help me tactfully redirect negative speech. Then I began to look for small opportunities to be more honoring and respectful in the ways I spoke about my neighboring colleagues.
Soon after I prayed, my team held a meeting to discuss strategy for an exercise we were about to conduct with the other office. A remark came from one of my teammates that targeted one person in particular, I’ll call him Darryl: “Maybe we should add extra days to the other office’s response timeline. Darryl always has a billion stupid questions, he always second guesses us, and never turns stuff in on time.”
“Actually,” I said, “I’ve had some great success working with Darryl this week. He was really appreciative when I gave him a heads-up about this exercise, and he raised some good questions that I think the others will have as well. Maybe if our team can address those questions ahead of time, we’ll have a better overall response rate.”
While my comment didn’t overtly admonish the negative speaker, it did offer a constructive solution to an ongoing problem, and it put a positive spin on Darryl’s character. We decided to adjust our approach to be more considerate of the other office’s position. As a result, Darryl had fewer questions and a quicker response time, which helped improve my team’s opinion of him.
My courage grew after this exchange was so successful, and I seized more opportunities to speak positively and constructively. Others on my team began to follow suit. Eventually, I noticed that a marked cultural shift was taking place – my team’s improved speech was causing us to actually view the others in a better light.
The fruits of this shift were immediate: Instead of being quick to blame the others, we became better listeners. We got better at anticipating their needs and more proactive in meeting them. Right speech facilitated teamwork, both within my unit and with the other office. Trust grew between all of us as a result. Today, we enjoy a strong and productive relationship with them.
The scripture from James shows us how quickly wrong speech can steer our hearts and minds farther from Christ and from each other. Wonderfully, the flipside of this is also true – practicing right speech fosters unity and goodness and inevitably draws us closer to the Lord. By speaking in a way that was more pleasing to God, my team helped replace a culture of suspicion with one of trust, and we are all now more effective employees.
Becca Brophy is a federal budget analyst in Washington, DC. She and her husband, Billy, have been married for five years and have three children, ages 4, 2, and newborn.