THE BLOG
07/15/2014 06:11 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Think Before You Speak!

Thinking before speaking is a challenge for a lot of people. It might even be hard for you, especially if you are trying to prove to the world how smart you are. Take the following little test and see if you've got this bad habit running through your communication with colleagues, friends, and employees.

Your assistant rushes into your office with news of an urgent document that needs your attention right away. What he doesn't know is that you were alerted to the situation a few minutes earlier by another colleague. Do you a) accept the document and thank your assistant for his expediency and effort? b) tell your assistant you were already privy to the information and he has wasted precious time?

If you let the moment pass with a simple, "Thank you," you're in good shape. If you're like a lot of people, you will find a way to communicate to your assistant that you are one step ahead of him. Your response may vary from a dismissive, "I already knew that!" to a more accusatory, "Why are you bothering me with this?" Either way, the damage is done.

It's not hard to stop trying to prove how smart you are. This three-step drill will help: 1) pause before you open your mouth and ask yourself, "Is anything I am going to say worth it?" 2) conclude that it isn't, and 3) say, "Thank you." If you can stop yourself in this minor moment, with someone with whom you work closely and who knows you well, you're in good shape. If not, try this visual on for comparison. Your CEO walks into your office with the same urgent document that you already know about. Would you tell her in the same impatient tone that you did your assistant that "you already know about it"? Probably not. It's something to think about.

Trying to prove how smart we are is just one of the bad habits that leads us to speak without thinking. Another is speak when angry or out of control. Some people use anger as a management tool to some success. It can get people's attention. The difficulty is that when you're angry, you're usually out of control, and it's hard to lead people when you're out of control. It's also hard to predict how people will react to your anger. They will shut down as often as they will perk up.

The worst thing about anger is that it stifles your ability to change. Once you get a reputation for emotional volatility, it can take years of model behavior to change how others see you. But, that's okay. You have to start somewhere.

How do you stop getting angry? My job is to show my clients that their anger is rarely someone else's fault. It's their flaw. A Buddhist legend tells of a young farmer paddling his boat up stream to deliver his produce to the village. As he looked ahead, he spied another vessel heading rapidly downstream, right towards him. He rowed furiously to get out of the way, to no avail. He yelled at the other vessel, "Change direction you idiot!" It didn't work. The vessel rammed into his with a loud thud. The young farmer was enraged and yelled out to the other vessel, "You moron! You idiot! What is wrong with you?" No one responded, and the young man realized there was no one in the other boat. The lesson is simple. There is never anyone in the other boat. When we are angry, we are screaming at an empty boat.

All of us have people in our lives who drive us crazy. We've spent hours reliving the unfair, unappreciative, inconsiderate treatment they have inflicted on us. But getting mad at this person makes just about as much sense as getting mad at a chair for being a chair. She is who she is. If we had her genes, her background, and her parents, we would be her. It's not easy, but you can do it. Suppress your inclination to speak when angry; bite your tongue. Once you appreciate the payoff of saying nothing (that silence keeps you from alienating people and damaging your own success), you have a chance of getting better!

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Please view the Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The next short video in the series Leadership Is a Contact Sport: Think accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready? The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015).