By Justin Bariso, Principal, EQ Applied

Reprinted with Permission

Years ago, I was watching an interview with comedian Craig Ferguson, when he gave some very sage advice:

There are three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything.

  • Does this need to be said?
  • Does this need to be said by me?
  • Does this need to be said by me, now?

Ferguson jokes it took him three marriages to learn that lesson.

Before you dismiss this as too simple, think about how this rule could very quickly make for:

  • Shorter emails and meetings at work
  • A kinder and gentler home
  • Less harmful, stupid, or regrettable comments on social media

With enough practice, it only takes a few seconds to mentally go through these questions.

And since I’ve learned this rule, I use it almost every day of my life.

For example:

When someone cuts me off in the supermarket, without realizing it, and I feel like giving them a piece of my mind.

  • Does this need to be said? Ummm…probably not.

When someone tries to provoke a fight with me on social media and I’m tempted to say something snarky or waste time going back-and-forth. . .

  • Does this need to be said? Definitely not.

When I get home from work and want to tell my wife something came up and I have to cancel our dinner plans for the weekend, but I see right away she’s had a horrible day.

  • Does this need to be said? Yeah, definitely.
  • Does this need to be said by me? Sure.
  • Does this need to be said by me, now? Nope. Better wait until she’s in a better mood and I’ve got a plan to make it up to her.

See how it works?

The Lesson

This quick mental dialogue is a lifesaver. It helps me to avoid saying something I’ll later regret.

At the same time, it doesn’t discourage me from speaking up when appropriate. There are times when the answer to all three questions is a resounding yes—even when what I need to say isn’t comfortable (for me or the recipient).

When those times come, the 3-question rule can help you to be assertive when necessary and speak with confidence, like this:

A teammate is late to a meeting—for the third time in a row. This can’t continue.

  • Does this need to be said? Yup.
  • Does this need to be said by me? Sure ‘nuff.
  • Does this need to be said by me, now? You better believe it—but of course, in an emotionally intelligent way.

But what if you have the opposite tendency? What if you naturally hesitate to voice your opinion?

In that case, the last thing you want to do is discourage yourself from speaking up. So, instead of using the 3-question rule you might use a single question:

  • If I don’t say this now, will I regret it later?

In fact, you could probably benefit from using both methods, at different times.

So, the next time you’re tempted to say something too quickly, stop!

Take a few seconds, and follow the 3-question rule.

Because those few seconds could make all the difference.

Try This

Take some time to ponder your personal communication style. Do you tend to put your foot in your mouth, agree too quickly to commitments, or otherwise say something you later regret? Or do you tend to stay silent, later wishing you had expressed yourself?

Then, look for opportunities to follow the 3-question rule by asking yourself:

  • Does this need to be said?
  • Does it need to be said by me?
  • Does it need to be said by me now?


  • If I don’t say this now, will I regret it later?

In summary

By using the 3-Question Rule, you will:

  • Save yourself from saying things you later regret
  • Increase the value of what you say
  • Speak with more confidence


Use this handy worksheet to explore EQ Rule #1: Emotional Intelligence: The 3-Question Rule


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About the Author
Justin Bariso, Principal, EQ Applied

The founder of EQ Applied, Justin Bariso helps organizations and individuals develop their emotional intelligence. His thoughts on leadership and EQ draw over a million readers a month, and LinkedIn named him a “Top Voice” in the field of management and workplace culture three years in a row. His book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, shares fascinating research, modern examples, and personal stories that illustrate how emotional intelligence works in the real world. Email: [email protected]