One of the most important Buddhist teaching, and the third step on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment, concerns “Right speech”. The way we communicate affects both our own self-image and how we are regarded and treated by others. Communication is a powerful tool and its consequences could lead to peace, freedom and harmony as well as to hatred, terror and genocide.
According to the Buddha, right speech should be truthful, kind, helpful and promote understanding, harmony and unity. This sounds self-evident, and most of us would agree to this ideal and appreciate if this was also practised by those around us. However, we would only need to look more closely at ourselves to realise that this is not always easy to follow.
Right speech is really talking from the heart. Let’s consider a bit more in detail what this could entail. The first part is about being truthful. This is not simply to avoid telling lies, but also to be true to ourselves and speak our mind when we see or hear something we don’t agree with. Being truthful in a consistent way may not always be popular, and the truth-teller may find herself exposed and alone, when being the only one voicing inconvenient truths. Being truthful in such situations require courage, especially as it in some situations may even come with a direct risk to one’s physical wellbeing.
Nevertheless, imagine that you are in a difficult dilemma, wouldn’t you want to hear someone’s truthful opinion rather than something uttered just to please? And if enough people had dared to speak their true mind, maybe atrocities like the genocides in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or Bosnia may not have taken place.
The truth could sometimes be loaded with emotions. Therefore, the truth should always be accompanied with kindness. Telling someone that she looks fat in her new dress may be true, but it is not kind and probably not even helpful. Words have the power to wound as much as arrows, and unkind words have inflicted much suffering and even suicides.
Talking with kindness, also means avoid back-talking and gossiping. You may only need one day of reflection to note how big part of the normal daily workplace conversations are about other persons not being present. There may be many reasons for gossiping or back-talking; contributing to the social chit-chat, being seen as well informed, boosting one’s own importance. However, these are all short-term benefits, and refusing to participate in gossip and back-talking will eventually earn you credit as a trustworthy person with integrity, to whom secrets and confidential information could safely be shared. Intervening when overhearing malicious gossip will also contribute to a healthier social environment.
Helpful speech is about trying to the best of your ability to bring as much substance as possible to your conversations, but also refraining from speaking when you don’t have anything meaningful to say. So much of normal talking is meaningless and idle chit-chat, and so many opportunities for deeper communication, allowing both parties to learn and to grow, are thus lost.
Whenever you meet a new person, consider how much you can be enriched by his or her experiences, and also how much you could contribute with wise reflections and new understandings. Engaging in a deeper conversation with curiosity and an eagerness to learn more about the other person, will surly spark an interesting discussion to which you can contribute with your insights. Going for the surface may be safer, but definitely less rewarding. As in any good conversation, you will gain the most by listening more than you are talking.
To be truly helpful, you will also need to step outside yourself, your own ego and preconceptions to try to understand what the other person would need from you. Sometimes a good advice could be helpful, but often the other person just needs someone to silently listen without any judgments.
By being truthful, kind and helpful, you will directly and indirectly promote understanding, harmony and unity. But this recommendation is not only about the way you are communicating, but equally about your bigger life priorities and the choice you and everyone else has to spend your time and effort for a greater good.
So, what’s in it for you with all this about right speech? As with the other parts of the Buddha’s teaching, the ultimate goal is liberation and enduring happiness. By living your life with kindness and compassion, you will not only contribute to a better world and experience a higher sense of self-respect, but also yourself be treated in a kinder and more positive way by those persons you encounter.
A karmic principle is that hate and bitterness result in more hate and bitterness, while loving kindness results in more loving kindness. You may have seen this in your relationships. Most arguments within a relationship starts with a feeling of loneliness and the notion that the other person does not understand your needs. In that situation, accusations and sarcasms, will effectively close the doors rather than open up for a trustful communication.
Adhering to the Buddhist principles of right speech and trying to put yourself in the other person’s situation will instead open the doors to a heart-to-heart communication with a potential to overcome the issues and take the relationship to a higher level.
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