A civil tongue takes years to train. Maybe decades. Some never learn. And no matter how many times I have faced it, nothing ever quite prepares me for how quickly an otherwise normal person can turn into a senseless fool. The tongue comes off the hinges spewing vile words into a situation that didn’t have to turn ugly.
I was on the receiving end of an uncivil tongue the other day. As much as I love my job, the most difficult part of running a small business is dealing with employee conflict. The unpleasant side of a broken humanity emerges. And all it takes is one guy with nothing good to say about anybody or anything to poison the morale of everyone around him. Like a noxious gas that permeates the air we all breathe.
This situation had been brewing for a while. Failure to follow directions. Work done so poorly that it had to be redone. Always argumentative. Always somebody else’s fault. Always telling me that he has to go behind the others because they’re not doing their job.
Tuesday afternoon I went out into the production beds to follow up on some of the work. My star employee is doing exactly what I had asked him not to do two hours earlier.
Suffice it to say that the conflict ended with me terminating his job. He was offended. “You gonna take my job over this?” It was more of a how-dare-you-proclamation than a question. He got more offended the more he talked. Which resulted in a few brutal moments of incivility. The disrespect was intense.
I wrapped up the conversation with, “I think you should go wait outside for your ride before one or both of us says something that we would probably regret.” I was physically shaking by the time our little bonding exercise was over.
It was my Dad who taught me the value of keeping my tongue in check. Not just in those heat of the moment occasions, but across the board in every situation. There’s nothing to be gained by going off at the mouth, whatever the reason. “Think before you speak, son,” he would say. “Once you say it, you can’t unsay it.”
It took me a long time to heed that advice. Many times, as a young man, I let my mouth get ahead of my brain. I think it’s in the male DNA code book. Maybe it’s a Chappell trait. And this really has nothing to do with the use of four-letter colorful linguistic accents. That’s part of it. But this is more about the kind of ungrateful and reckless and irresponsible thoughts that go on in our heads which we put into audible words when we lack the class to choose our words more carefully.
I’ve heard strangers in the checkout line talk to some poor teenage cashier like she was a worthless piece of trash just because some item didn’t ring up correctly. A salesman taking cheap shots at his competitors to impress me with his knowledge. A church member criticizing the preacher when they have no idea what it may be like to walk in his shoes. An employee whom I’ve known for three months bashing other employees whom I’ve known and trusted for sixteen years.
The Good Book is right. The tongue can set the whole course of a man’s life on fire. Bitterness and twisted perceptions have a way of spilling off the tip of the tongue like oil from a drip torch. Before you know it, the whole world is on fire.
Ships do sink when cheap shots are fired. Marriages suffer. Families fall apart. Churches split up. Work becomes miserable. Friendships grow cold. Resentment takes root. Sleep refuses to come. Nerves begin to fray. And all because of loose lips.
The key to keeping the tongue in check is to deal with the conflict in your head before it gets to your mouth. Refuse to let it fester. But I know that’s easier said than done.
This has been 25 years ago, now. I remember it well because it may have been the first time I was proactive at this sort of thing. I had been biting my tongue for awhile at work. I felt like the boss was pushing the edge of my envelope a little too hard. Second guessing my work. Always coming back with little adjustments to nearly everything I did. I was being micro-managed at every turn.
My next move was taken straight out of my Dad’s play book. “Son, there’ll come a time when you have to go in the boss’s office and sit down across the desk from him. Take your cap off, lay it on the desk and tell him you are here to talk. Not as employee to employer, but as one grown man to another.”
There was probably more to it than that, but that is literally what I did. I knocked on his door. “You got a few minutes?” I sat down, laid my cap on his desk, and quoted my Dad. There was no yelling. All the sharp-edged creative verbal attacks that I had played over and over a thousand times in my head stayed in my head. We had a civil conversation about work, about respect, and about conflict. Our relationship turned 180° from that day forward.
Things have really changed around here in the last 48 hours. A few days ago, there was a dark cloud of uneasiness hovering over the farm. The guys were not as talkative. The look on their faces was solemn and serious. There’s usually a lilt and a rhythm to the work, but it had disappeared for a while.
I should have seen this coming long before I dealt with it. I’ve seen it before. One man’s mouth can steal another man’s pleasure in what he does. No man likes to face his day with misery already on his mind.
Today the conversation is back. The guys are joking around with each other again. The work is the same, but somehow it’s lighter than it was. I can tell, even though they don’t know all the details, they know what happened. They even appreciate why it happened. They can feel the fresh air blowing after the storm passed through.
Let me confess. I wasn’t squeaky clean in all of this mess. I got pushed and pushed back a bit. I could have handled that conversation better than I did. And maybe confession is why I’m telling you the whole story in the first place.
As long as there are more than two people in this world there will never be an end to conflict. And every time I come up against my own stubborn tendency to run off at the mouth, I bite down hard. My Mama whispers in my ear.
“If you ain’t got something good to say, better off you say nothing at all.”
If only we all could do just that.