In last week’s entry, I introduced restraint as a vital communication competency. Restraint prevents relational damage and protects your conversational goals by allowing time for your negative emotions to subside. When you are upset or agitated, restraint is required to create and expand the crucial space between an emotional trigger and your response. This week I will discuss six actions that can help you build restraint.

1. Stop talking. This is so easy to say, yet so hard to do. Restraint inserts itself in the space between what you feel like saying and what you actually say, so focus on consciously enlarging this crucial and safe area. Just a few seconds can often mean the difference between a measured response and a destructive one. If you are worried about your ability to restrain a response, remove yourself from the situation. Walking away when you are about to say something counterproductive counts as restraint too.

2. Build restraint like a muscle. Think of restraint as a muscle and resolve to strengthen it through regular practice. Daily life will provide plenty of opportunities to exercise restraint. Merely trying to restrain yourself can add a few critical seconds—time that might make a difference—between your negative feelings and your response. If you consciously try to choke back unhelpful comments and ill-chosen words, your restraint muscle will, over time, get stronger and develop into a prized communication asset.

3. Focus on restraining angry and frustrated responses first. Since anger and frustration provoke some of our most damaging responses, restraint is especially important when either of these two emotions are present. Strive to let the first—and usually the strongest—wave of anger or frustration move silently through you. I will discuss ways to manage your emotions in future entries. For now, make a commitment not to respond immediately when you are angry or frustrated. As the writer Ambrose Bierce said, “speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”

4. Eliminate witty comebacks, putdowns, and insults. Putdowns, insults, and witty comebacks may feel good to you for a few seconds, but they cause a lot of heartburn down the line. Insults are the antithesis of smart communication because they gain you nothing but can potentially cost you a great deal. Restrain yourself. When you feel a witty comeback sizzling in your head, send the urge to the corner and put a dunce cap on it.

5. Repair the damage from restraint-based transgressions immediately. Occasionally, your emotions will overpower your restraint and your words will cause damage. When this happens, nothing is better than a quick and sincere apology. People usually accept timely apologies for all but the most egregious of verbal transgressions. When a lack of restraint gets you into a hole, stop digging and apologize. And try your best to not to pick up the shovel again.

6. Give yourself credit for the things you don’t say. Invisible victories will often represent your greatest communication achievements, but they are typically ignored because they are not observable. It’s easier to “see” your words, but don’t ignore the monumental importance of all of the things you don’t say. Restraint isn’t flashy or glamorous, but it won’t damage a relationship or torpedo your goals either. Give yourself credit for all of the trouble that you avoid, for all of the words that you choke back, and for all of the dust-ups that you steer clear of. These invisible accomplishments will be some of your most important communication achievements.

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