Avoiding conversational landmines

There is a great story contained in Nehemiah 2. It’s one to take note of if you are a leader. minefieldNehemiah exercised wisdom as he interacted with the most powerful person in the known world. A misstep could have cost him his life. Consequences were dramatically negative if he stepped on a “conversational landmine.” But he didn’t. And you and I can learn from his example.

Nehemiah knew what not to say

The words we use are important. Perhaps more important are the words we choose not to use. Between the time of Nehemiah chapter 1 and chapter 2, this biblical leader had pondered the condition of Jerusalem and its people. He came to realize that he was God’s solution to the problems back home in Israel. Nehemiah believed he was the one to go back and lead the rebuilding efforts. All he needed was the right opportunity to speak about this to his king.

When he appeared before King Artaxerxes, this powerful leader noticed Nehemiah’s downcast face. “Why are you sad when you aren’t sick?” the king asked. “This is nothing but depression” (v.2). Nehemiah knew that appearing sad might be misinterpreted by his king; some kings even executed people for acting sad or depressed in their court. Nehemiah’s next few words would be extremely important.

Nehemiah replied, “May the king live forever! Why should I not be sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed with fire?” Did you catch the brilliance of Nehemiah’s statement and his question? First he affirmed his loyalty to his king, and then he answered the king’s question. But look at the words he used to do it: “Why should I not be sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed with fire?”

Nehemiah went out of his way not to say the word “Jerusalem.” In fact, he went so far out of his way not to say that word that he used 18 words to describe it (he could have used just 1 word!) This is a tremendous leadership lesson for all of us. The words we choose not to say are as important as the ones we choose to say. Nehemiah avoided using the word “Jerusalem” because just decades prior the people of Jerusalem and its leaders had rebelled against King Artaxerxes’ ancestors.  This rebellion led to its destruction, the burning of its gates, and the extradition of its top leaders (like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). Nehemiah evidently didn’t want to trigger any memories of his city’s rebelliousness; he wanted King Artaxerxes to think of it in a positive way. Using the word “Jerusalem” could have triggered painful memories of a city that was known for acting rebelliously. Nehemiah didn’t need that if he was to accomplish his real goal: the repair of the city and the restoration of the people.

How many times this week should you and I have been much more cautious about the words we spoke in conversation with others? Careless words or words that do not help us accomplish our goals should be jettisoned in favor of words that do help us. The words we choose not to say are very important if we want to see our goals and plans accomplished.

Nehemiah kept his words to himself – until the right moment

King Artaxerxes granted permission for Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and initiate repairs. Once there, Nehemiah surveyed the damaged city at night. He did this while taking only a few men with him to survey the damage, but he didn’t “spill the beans” about what he was planning to do. “I didn’t tell anyone what my God had laid on my heart to do for Jerusalem” (v.12).

Isn’t that a difficult thing to do as a leader? Keeping secrets is tough. Don’t you just want to share your thoughts and plans with someone else? What’s the harm? But saying too much too soon can lead to disastrous results. People learn of your plans and ideas before you are ready to prepare them to hear them; people prematurely jump to conclusions and decide not to support your efforts. Leadership is a lonely place, and God’s leaders must learn to sometimes hold their cards close to their chests – no tipping of their hands, so to speak.

Let’s wrap it up

So we can find in Nehemiah’s example two big things he did right as a leader:

  1.  He learned what words not to use in conversation with people
  2.  He learned not to tell everything he knew – waiting for the right moment is critical

Practice these two things and watch your leadership of people become more effective. The Scripture is full of ancient wisdom and examples for us today. Knowing what not to say, and knowing when not to say the words, helps us avoid “conversational landmines.”


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