“… the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark” (James 3: 5)

Although the weight of the human tongue is only about 60 – 70 grams, its potential for evil is so great that it has been situated behind a double barrier to prevent it from operating indiscriminately – the lips and the teeth! Although I say that ‘tongue in cheek’, many spiritual documents guard against the misuse of the tongue. In fact, most religions variously describe the tongue as “wicked, deceitful, perverse, filthy, corrupt, flattering, slanderous, gossiping, blasphemous, foolish, boasting, complaining, cursing, contentious, sensual and vile”. And that list is not exhaustive. Tongues, and subsequent words, reveal our submission to or rebellion against principles of righteousness, love and sustainability. They reveal our selfishness or selflessness. They reveal what is really important to us (e.g. a ‘win at all cost’ attitude or empathy for those that are less fortunate than we are). They have the power to lead toward evil (to evoke anger, to incite insurrection or even war), or they have the power to heal (to empower, to demonstrate care, to build, to give people hope). Words are inclusive or exclusive. They invite togetherness, building teamwork or alienate, building walls. They either justify us or bring us into condemnation. Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Stephen R Covey’s fifth habit in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is a practical principle for leaders through which we can tame the tongue – it states: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

  1. Seek first to understand – the principle of consideration and empathic communication.

Herein is an attempt to grasp the concerns and views of the other deeply. It demonstrates humility and expresses dignity and respect to the other party. Leaders so often have a tendency to charge in to fix things up with good counsel, but fail to take the time to diagnose and understand the problem holistically.

Taming the tongue for the leader requires listening first – really getting to grips with the content and emotion of what is being expressed. Leaders demonstrate empathy when they are able to reflect this content and emotion accurately. Reflective listening could sound like this: “You seem to be saying that ….” Covey notes, however, that there should be no ‘autobiography’ projected in empathic responses – autobiography being views from your own frame of reference, your own story. Autobiography is often viewed as “manipulative, self-serving, intimidating or condescending” and demonstrates that no real attempt at understanding was made.

When a leader tames the tongue and a genuine concern for the other party’s point of view is expressed, a sense of trust starts developing in the communication. It creates the environment where parties sense they can be honest and open without a fear of being put down. Emotional pressure thus dissipates.

  1. Then seek to be understood – the principle of courageous communication.

The early Greeks had three words in their philosophy which suggest the preferred approach when taming the tongue to communicate your view, the words: ethos, pathos, logos. Covey suggests that the sequence is all important when making presentations as a leader and says: “Ethos is your personal credibility, the faith people have in your integrity and competency. It’s the trust that you inspire. Pathos is the empathic side – it’s the feeling. It means that you are in alignment with the emotional thrust of another person’s communication. Logos is the logic, the reasoning part of the presentation”.

Effectively presenting your view, then, is best achieved if: firstly, the foundation of your character is well-established (others trust you), secondly, you have taken time to understand the views and concerns of the other parties and are aligned to the emotional thrust of the same (understanding the importance of the issues to them) and thirdly, the reasoning of your presentation is logical (a compelling presentation of well-researched material). The presentation of your view should follow that order for best results.


The tongue indeed has the power over death and life. The leader must tame the tongue to achieve communication authenticity and effectiveness, and rally sustainable followership. The time the leader invests in taking control of the tongue, understanding the concerns of the people (employees, citizens, etc.) and accurately reflecting content and emotion, the better dividends for open and authentic communication will be realised.

Free To Grow offers the workshop Courageous Conversations to help you tame the tongue (www.freetogrow.com)

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