On Thinking Before You Speak

Photo by Roman Jøe

One of the criticisms Secretary Clinton received throughout her last presidential campaign was that she was too cagey. She didn’t come across as honest, trustworthy, and like a real person. Whenever she was asked a question during a debate or town hall meeting you could almost see the cogs whirring in her brain as she decided how best to answer.

The same was true of President Obama throughout his presidency. He could hardly be accused of being someone who said anything "off the cuff." In fact, he was frequently known for over-explaining his answers; giving much more information than the interviewer could possibly want, which in turn hampered their ability to ask further questions.

This is not, however, a rebuttal of Clinton or Obama. Quite the opposite; Secretary Clinton and President Obama have both mastered the ability to think before they speak—that old chestnut that was repeated ad nauseam to us as children. While they, Clinton in particular, were sometimes criticized for this, it’s worth noting that they were criticized for their rare slip-ups—those moments in which they spoke without first thinking through their answer—even more. (Clinton’s “basket full of deplorables,” comment being a particularly well-circulated example.)

In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that James Russell Lowell described Abraham Lincoln’s ability to speak “as if the people were listening to their own thinking out loud.” I love this idea, but in reality, as I’m sure Lincoln was well aware, in order to get to this stage you need to have already put in the heavy lifting—your own thinking—before you speak.

This is as true in our own lives as it is of the lives of former presidents and presidential candidates. Thinking before we speak is something I’ve personally learned the benefit of only very recently. Whether while giving media interviews for my recent book, or in daily conversations with my wife, I gain a certain something when I pause, allow for the cogs to whirr, and then say my piece—with the fact that I’m significantly less likely to offend the person I’m speaking with being the icing on the cake.

Your thinking deserves to see the light of day. Think before you speak to allow it to rise up and be heard. ∎

Benjamin Spall

Benjamin Spall

Benjamin Spall is the co-author of My Morning Routine (Portfolio). He has written for outlets including the New York Times, New York Observer, Quartz, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, CNBC, and more.