The Power of Fewer Words

Last week I wrote about the Power of Words — how my words (and yours) can be a soothing balm or a source of pain.  That is one of the lessons I am learning on my new job; another lesson comes with it: fewer words can be more useful than more words.

This is a challenge for me.

Stop laughing.


I really like to talk. When I was in middle school our report cards showed two grades for each subject — a letter grade to show our academic performance and a number grade to show our citizenship.  If you forget about penmanship, I usually had all As in academics.  You might imagine that an all-A student would also get the highest citizenship scores — all 1s.   Ones indicated that you followed classroom rules, paid attention in class, refrained from disrupting others, and (here it is) didn’t talk during class time.  Twos indicated that you were doing great with a few minor exceptions.  Threes indicated that you had room to grow.  Fours meant that you were a nuisance to the teacher. Fives meant you were one of those students.  I hereby confess to all the talkers I have ever taught and scolded in my class that beside most of my As were 3s, 4s, and occasionally a 5.  (Pause for collective gasp.)

Naturally I chose a profession that would support my predisposition to garrulousness — I became an English teacher.  Where else would I get paid to stand in front of a captive audience for eight hours a day?  Where else would my anecdotes be celebrated?  Where else could I justify tangential commentary?

I often said in class, “well, this is totally unrelated to what we are talking about, but…” My students, especially seniors, would smile and lean in for a little “story time with Mrs. Rathje”.  Sometimes I could claim that my stories had lasting life-lesson value, but often, I gave my students (and myself) a little break with an amusing (or not) story from my life experience.

Now, for the past several years I have been working with average and above average students who can easily sort out the necessary content from the stand-up routine of a rather verbose instructor — especially when given the verbal cue, “this is totally unrelated to our lesson today.”  But now? Now I am working with students who really struggle with reading — with words.  They don’t need extraneous noise or extra words to muddle their thinking.  I have to practice a little restraint (or a lot of restraint) and focus on giving only the positive reinforcement plus the corrective guidance that will enable my students to more easily decode and comprehend.  I’ve got to keep my stories inside my head — at least until I get home and can put them in my blog for you.

This lesson is of course causing me to think that perhaps I need a little verbal restraint outside of work, too.  I mean, I don’t have to use up 20,000 words every single day. I could choose to use closer to 13,000 and give others some air time.  I’m not the only person in the world (or my house) who has things to say.

I used to say in my class, “God have you one mouth and two ears; respect the ratio.” I need to practice what I have preached.  I need to listen at least as much as I talk, and if I ‘respect the ratio’, I will be listening twice as much as I am talking.  For a chatterbox like me, that is quite a challenge.

And I could probably further apply this lesson to my prayer life — I could listen to God for at least as long as I list requests, or even twice as long. For a selfish human like me, that is even more of a challenge.

I like to fill space with words — spoken or written– but silence is really ok.  Silence allows time for thinking, processing, listening, and truly hearing.  It’s probably well-past time for me to give silence a try.

Isaiah 30:15

…in quietness and trust is your strength…

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