Why We Can't Keep Our Mouths Shut

Why we say things we shouldn't, and 3 tips for stopping.

Posted Jun 26, 2014

Some time ago I was in a meeting that turned contentious. One employee had received an alternate work assignment for the upcoming year, which led a co-worker to become visibly angry. This co-worker tried to convince the group that no one should receive such an assignment and that the employee should return to their original position. When it became clear that the rest of the group was not persuaded by her argument, the co-worker blurted an unkind comment about the employee’s personal appearance and concluded with, “This is *&^$ing ridiculous!”

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Everyone sat in stunned silence.

Most of us, most of the time, are able to control our instinct to voice such negative statements. Even when we’re emotional and believe that a decision is truly “ridiculous,” we modify how we express our point of view in favor of long-term goals, like getting along with co-workers or maintaining professional tact. But all of us have moments when we simply can’t help ourselves and we blurt out things we ultimately regret. Understanding the underlying reasons gives us the insight we need to stop it.

What is Blurting?

Blurting is a specific kind of spontaneous speech that has negative repercussions. Some spontaneous speech is positive, like an unexpected compliment or humorous statement. But blurting represents a remark made in haste we wish we could take back. According to research from Hample, et al. (2013), blurting most often refers to unedited angry remarks, like the one discussed above. Blurting also includes inappropriate witticisms, like responding to the news of someone being hit and killed by a salt truck in a winter storm by exclaiming, “I guess she was asSALTED!”* This is the kind of spontaneous speech we instantly regret.

*This example comes from Scott Adams' Dilbert blog; see more inappropriate witticisms here.

Blurting stands out in conversation not only because it’s detrimental but also because it’s not part of our normal speech process. To form understandable speech patterns, we intuitively make a quick plan before engaging our mouths. And once we do engage, we continue planning and making adjustments as we deliver our words. For example, if your listener starts to frown and narrow his or her eyes, you may instinctively soften your tone or take another approach. It’s natural to do this. Indeed, if we didn’t make a quick plan, our speech would come out as gibberish. While this constant planning and fine-tuning is the norm, unplanned and instantly regrettable comments can still slip from our mouths.

Some people blurt more than others. This tendency can be measured through a questionnaire devised by a team of communication researchers at the University of Maryland. Consider how much you agree or disagree with the following statements.

  • “In an argument, if I think it, I will say it.”
  • “During a heated argument, my mouth is engaged, but my mind often isn’t.”
  • “I always say what’s on my mind.”
  • “I sometimes offend other people during arguments.”
  • “Sometimes when I think of a really good point, I just can’t stop myself from making it, even if I should.”

Some people are more likely to agree with these statements than others and the research team discovered some reasons why.

Why We Blurt

Those who are inclined to blurt see interpersonal arguments in a less sophisticated way and tend to be focused on short-term goals. The co-worker’s immediate goal, for example, may have been to show her superiority over the other employee, and because she was focused exclusively on that self-oriented goal, she blurted out those unedited and damaging words when the group rejected her comments.

Specifically, the research found that people who tend to blurt are:

  • more likely to see arguments as a forum to assert self-oriented goals;
  • more likely to see arguments as a forum to show dominance;
  • more likely to see arguments as a forum for “play";
  • more likely to see arguments as a forum to show one’s identity;
  • less likely to see arguments as cooperative and civil.

How we see our environment matters as well. People are more likely to blurt when they believe they have a right to make such remarks in a given situation. They are less likely to blurt in situations in which they don’t see personal benefits or when they perceive there will be relational consequences for their actions. It’s also noteworthy that a tendency to blurt was not related to gender.

Since blurting often leads to embarrassment, regret, and offense, it’s worthwhile to consider how we can avoid it.

How to Stop

1. Change Your “Argument Frame."

People who frequently blurt tend to see arguments as uncooperative and adversarial. This is their “argument frame,” and it sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we frame our arguments as combative, we’re more likely to blurt whatever comes to mind (even if it’s ineffective or hurtful) and create the very kind of argument we expected—one that’s uncooperative and adversarial. But arguments don’t have to be viewed in this manner. Many people have a completely different argument frame, one that views arguments as an opportunity to discuss differing ideas and develop solutions that benefit all parties.

A critical step in reducing the tendency to blurt, then, is to pay attention to how you view arguments and try to change your frame. Remind yourself that:

  • Arguments can be cooperative, positive, and productive.
  • Being heard and taken seriously is important, but listening and considering others' points of view is important too.
  • The point of an argument isn’t always to win or make a statement that leaves others speechless. It can also be about learning, problem solving, or creating something new.

2. Remember Your Long-Term Goal.

Blurting happens when we bypass the normal editing process that allows us to shape our messages to be consistent with larger goals. In the heat of the moment, our immediate intent might be to win an argument or belittle our target, but our long-term goal is more likely to maintain a strong working relationship, find a solution to a problem, or maintain credibility and influence within the group. A good practice, then—especially when a conversation is challenging or emotional—is to be mindful of the bigger picture. Considering our long-term goals helps to stimulate the editorial process—the very process we skip when we blurt.

3. Remember Your Bigger Truth.

In addition to keeping our long-term goals at the forefront of our mind, it’s helpful to recognize that potential blurts rarely reflect our deeper truth. We may believe the first thing that comes to our mind is “the truth” and that to alter or “candy coat” that message is inauthentic. However, there is likely to be more truth in our planned responses than the first thing that pops into our head. When a child blurts, “I hate you,” to her mother, those words don’t reflect her deeper truth—that she loves her mother and is simply upset with a decision the parent has made. Truth doesn’t lie in our initial, emotional thoughts, but rather in our deepest values and what we hope to create for ourselves and for others.

Changing your argument frame, along with reminding yourself of your larger goals and your deeper truth, can help eliminate blurting and allow you to choose what you want to say.

Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author of COMMIT TO WIN (2014, Hudson Street Press/Penguin), available at Amazon.com and wherever books are sold.

She can be found on TwitterFacebook, and at www.heidireeder.com.

The research in this blog comes from: Hample, D., Richards, A.S., & Skubisz, C. (2013). Blurting. Communication Monographs, 80(4), 503-532.

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