I was watching an interview with comedian Craig Ferguson several years ago when he said something I've never forgotten:
There are three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything.
- Does this need to be said?
- Does this need to be said by me?
- Does this need to be said by me, now?
Ferguson said it took him three marriages to learn that lesson.
Of course, Ferguson's goal was to get a laugh. But let me tell you something: This is a brilliant tool that will immediately sharpen your emotional intelligence.
In fact, I use this rule every single day of my life. (On most days, more than once.)
Once you practice a bit, it only takes a few seconds to go through these questions in your mind.
You're at the office supply store, and someone unintentionally cuts you off. You're tempted to give them a piece of your mind.
Does this need to be said? Nah, fuggedaboutit!
Or, someone you don't know tries to provoke you on social media. You're tempted to end them with your superior snark, or spend hours debating them on the topic they've proved they obviously know less about than you.
Does this need to be said? No way. Move on and focus on more important things.
Or, you get home from work and want to tell your spouse that something came up and you've got to cancel your dinner plans for the weekend ... but then you notice that they've had a really bad day.
- Does this need to be said? Yeah, for sure.
- Does this need to be said by me? Definitely.
- Does this need to be said by me, now? Nope. Better wait until they're in a better mood and you've got a plan to make it up to them.
As you can see, this quick mental dialogue is a lifesaver. It helps you to avoid saying things you wish you could take back. But at the same time ...
It encourages you to actually speak up when it's the right thing to do. How so?
You'll encounter times when your answer to each question is a clear yes: This needs to be said, by me, right now! ... even when it sparks a conversation that isn't easy--for you or the person you're speaking with.
In those cases, the three-question rule will inspire confidence and help you be assertive.
For example, a member of your team is late for a meeting for the third time in a row. You thought about addressing it last time, but you didn't.
Now, you ask yourself:
- Does this need to be said? Yes, for sure.
- Does this need to be said by me? Depends on a few things, but if you've been inconvenienced, yes.
- Does this need to be said by me, now? Yes!
Of course, you still want to address things in an emotionally intelligent way. Less "We've got to nip this thing in the bud" and more "Is everything OK?"
This type of approach allows you to get to the real root of the problem. It also helps the other person see you as someone trying to help, not harm. And that's the key to inspiring lasting change.
One more thing
But you might be wondering, what if your default behavior isn't blurting out something too quickly; rather, you often hesitate to speak up?
In that case, try using this question instead:
If I don't say this now, will I regret it later?
Chances are, you can use both of these methods, adapting according to the circumstances.
So, the next time you catch yourself about to say something you might regret, stop!
Take a pause, and follow the three-question rule.
And don't thank me.
Thank Craig Ferguson.
(If you liked this rule, be sure to sign up for my free newsletter, where I share a similar rule every week that will help you make emotions work for you, instead of against you.)