Every year I’ve posted some thoughts about handling the holidays — especially when it comes to stressful encounters with family members. I thought I’d start the series today, revisiting one of the old posts each day as we approach Christmas. Good communication is key to getting along:
Since Right Speech (the linked post provides a lengthy explanation) was the first practice I encountered and the one I’ve studied the most I tend to refer to practices related to communication as Right Speech. Occasionally, though, someone tells me this advice isn’t for them because they’re not Buddhist. I’m going to try to remember to just talk about communicating. I haven’t studied every tradition, but every tradition I’ve studied has Right Speech somewhere at its core. I hope the discussion can be seen as universal; guidelines for applying spiritual principles to communication even if I forget and call it Right Speech.
The key tenets of Right Speech are speaking the truth and making sure that speech doesn’t harm (or, from the other side, that speech is of benefit). Every tradition I’ve encountered has some principles about speaking truth and not harming others. I like the Buddhist practice because they tend to break principles down into smaller pieces and individual practices. I like the way Right Speech provides a lot of specific thoughts on how to walk a spiritual path while talking to others. “Speak the truth” and “try to be of benefit or not to harm” are so abstract that it’s hard to apply to every day conversations.
My friend and teacher, Gay Luce, studied for some years with Buddhist masters and then created her own teachings on Right Speech practice. I find her core suggestions for mindful speech very helpful in keeping myself on track.
There are five questions to consider when you are about to speak and while you are speaking:
- What am I talking about?
Sometimes we start talking just to fill a silence and without any particular point. Try defining for yourself what the topic or subject is that you wish to talk about. You may begin to realize that sometimes there is more connection to another in harmonious silence than in speaking. Do you ever just randomly bring up some topic to keep the air filled with conversation?
- What am I thinking as I talk about this topic or what do I believe about it?
This invites you to examine what you really think about a given subject — to express not just what someone else has said or the point of view you think you should hold but what you believe to be true. How often do you just start spouting an opinion without stopping to consider what you believe in your heart?
- What am I feeling as I talk about this?
In our society we are often out of touch with our own feelings and we talk without being at all aware of what our feelings are about the subject. Frequently even when we do identify a feeling it is one that has been triggered by some deeper, unidentified emotion. The more you attune to what you are feeling about the things you discuss, the deeper you can go into your true feelings.
- Why am I saying this to you? Why do I want you to know this?
Sometimes we have something we want to say so badly that we’d tell it to anyone who happened to be there. But most of the time there is some unacknowledged and unexpressed reason why we have chosen to raise a particular topic with a particular person. Perhaps you trust this person more than others. Or you have some reason to believe this person will know or understand more than others about your subject. Maybe you want to show off for this individual or manipulate him into doing something for you.
- What do I want for myself from this?
We have all kinds of motives for talking and many of them involve something we want to get or accomplish. Sometimes we talk just to pass time or fill the air with sound. Sometimes we want to persuade or show superiority or deflate someone or reveal our great knowledge. Knowing your motives for speaking (and for speaking to a specific person) helps you to choose your words more carefully.
As cumbersome as it may seem, if you engage in the practice of consciously answering those questions in your own mind before you speak –and, if you can find a practice buddy, also out loud to your listener — you will find that you rarely stray from mindful communication. If you stop to think about what you want to talk about and why, you will rarely indulge in idle chatter. In reflecting upon what you want to say you will find that it is easier to curtail hurtful or divisive words.
When you examine your motives for speaking, you begin to realize how often you use words to create distance or say things to show off or make yourself look good or to control or manipulate another. “Think before you speak,” becomes a spiritual practice. Sylvia Boorstein says to ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to say an improvement on silence?” (Boorstein, It’s Easier Than You Think, 1997, pp. 50-52) One of my all-time favorite teachings.
If you can be this mindful about what you say through this holiday season you may find that conversations with people you find difficult may go much better.