An excerpt from How to Communicate Like a Buddhist
by Cynthia Kane
by Cynthia Kane
The Four Elements of Right Speech
While various teachers and schools of Buddhism translate the four elements of right speech in slightly different ways, there is one thing they all agree on: Right speech is a guideline for communicating in a loving, compassionate, and authentic way.
I teach the elements of right speech as the following:
I’ll explain all of these in greater detail in a moment.
Another tool we will utilize here are three questions, and they act like a litmus test as to whether or not our words are following the principal of right speech. When in doubt about any statement, if you can answer yes to all of the following questions then it’s likely your words are consistent with the principals of right speech:
Throughout my book, we come back to these four principals and the above three questions again and again, as they act as filters from which all our speaking and listening pour through. If we can incorporate these principals into our day-to-day interactions, we not only learn how to speak and listen in a way that helps others and ourselves suffer less, but we also have a checklist to make sure we’re clearly communicating.
Tell the Truth
If I asked you if you are reading right now, you would say yes. If I asked you what color your shirt is, you’d likely tell me exactly what I see. These are easy truths to express. But what about the harder truths, like when a friend asks if you like her partner and you say yes when you really want to say no? Or your boss asks if you want to take on another project and you really don’t but you do it anyway? How do we state those truths?
Let’s face it. A lot of the time we don’t tell the truth. In a word, we lie. Sometimes we lie because we don’t want to offend anybody, or come off as needy, mean, demanding, or even confrontational. Other times we lie because we are afraid of what people will think of us if we tell the truth, or that if we tell the truth then we won’t get something we want, or we will lose something we already have, whether that be a material possession or an image we have created and are trying to maintain. If we look at the majority of our lies, the root behind them is desire and fear.
Perhaps we tell ourselves that the issue we’re lying about isn’t that important. Plus, it can be scary to reveal how we truly feel without knowing what others’ reactions may be. On the other hand, maybe we’ve tried to be honest many times but nobody’s getting it, and so we choose to tell people what they want to hear instead of the truth. But by burying the truth of how we feel aside, what we’re really doing is being dishonest with ourselves. If we hide the truth one time, and then another, and so on, it compounds over time to create a life of dissatisfaction and resentment.
I understand that sometimes telling the truth is hard—especially when our goal is to protect someone’s feelings. That begs the question, is there a way we can be truthful and also mindful of how our words will likely be interpreted? Are white lies acceptable when our aim is to serve the greater good? Questions like these are difficult to answer, and my experience is that very few people are able to give up speaking untruths altogether. But if we can become mindful of when, where, and most importantly why we lie, we have taken the first step toward eliminating or at least minimizing them from our communications.
Personally, I have a habit of lying to others about my own wants and needs, especially when it comes to intimate relationships. I like to pretend everything is hunky dory when it really isn’t. Why? Because I want to avoid conflict; I want to be able to go with the flow. But here’s what happens when I do that: I don’t honor my own truth. I keep myself in the same position of lack. I suffer, and in turn so does my partner.
Let’s look at a quick example.
We will talk more about this graphic in a later section on the language of silence and passive-aggressive behavior. But for now, just notice it as a little example of not being truthful.
When we say what we mean, we signal to ourselves that we believe our truth; that we are capable of taking care of our own needs; that we are ultimately responsible for turning our desires into action. By being clear about our needs, we accept the reality of how we feel and can choose to alleviate our own suffering. If we choose to ignore or hide the truth, this almost inevitably leads to us acting in ways that promote hurtful interactions. The times when it’s difficult to be honest are generally the moments when honesty is needed most—to help clear tension, to release our feelings, to gain acceptance of ourselves and others, and to liberate us from resentment and shame.
Depending on the situation, being honest can be uncomfortable, so we get comfortable with it by learning how to tell the truth in an effective way. If we aren’t careful, saying what we mean can come across as hurtful, attacking, criticizing, or judging. This is not effective communication. But if we focus on our own needs and not the actions that provoke them, we make it easier for the person we’re speaking with to hear us. If we come from a place of observation without judgment it’s likely the person we’re with will feel safe enough to respond instead of get defensive, shut down, or even run for the hills. We will look at effective ways to do this throughout the book.
The next three rules come out of the first rule.
Before I learned the second rule, don’t exaggerate, many things in my life were a big deal. I’d take one critical remark and interpret it to mean that I was the worst person in the world. Or, in the other direction, I would take a positive remark and think I was better or knew more than those I was working with. When I’d want to sound important, I’d talk about how much I had going on and how there was no way I could go out for dinner because I was way too busy. And when I was in catastrophe mode, I would typically collapse on my couch with boxes of Chinese food, wallowing in negative self-talk and thinking the worst-case scenarios in all areas of my life.
The second element of right speech is related to the first, as anytime we are exaggerating, we aren’t telling the truth or seeing the situation for what it is—we’re lying to others and ourselves. When we fall into a habit of exaggerating, we often alternate between either being horrible people or perfect saints; we never see others and ourselves as equals.
This second rule of right speech can be related to another Buddhist principal: equanimity. Equanimity, or the art of staying balanced, is one of four principal virtues that the Buddha encouraged his disciples to cultivate. These virtues are referred to as the four immeasurables. The others are metta (loving-kindness), compassion, and sympathetic joy. Any time we exaggerate, we are by definition out of balance.
When it comes to exaggeration, many people can spot the obvious examples, such as when someone
exaggerates to seem more “important” (Buddhism is clear that no one is more important than anyone else), or wealthier than he or she actually is. But it’s the more subtle examples of exaggeration that many of us miss, likely because we don’t see them as exaggerations.
Take a look at the following statements:
“This is the worst day of my life.”
“You always do that to me.”
“This is taking forever.”
“I will never get out of here.”
“I cant believe you would do/say that.”
“This place has the worst service on the planet.”
“He/she is always late.”
“That was a complete waste of my time.”
“Someone like him/her would never be interested in someone like me.”
In most cases, all of these statements are likely exaggerations, and consequently not helpful in terms of developing good communication habits with others and yourself. Take a look at the last one, “Someone like him/her would never be interested in someone like me.” When you say something like this, not only have you exaggerated, but you have also put forth the implication (to yourself) that you are “not good enough” for the other person. Statements of exaggeration, especially negative ones, carry the energy of suffering with them that can discolor your experience of the moment. (We will cover this in more detail in the next section, “Listening to Yourself.”)
By coming to a conversation with a sense of equanimity and equality instead of exaggeration, you can avoid many of the pitfalls of miscommunication. Instead of making blanket statements that demean your worthiness or provoke a defensive or antagonistic reaction in someone (and also aren’t true in most cases), you are more likely to create an environment where positive feelings and genuine communication can take place.
Even when you are in a communication scenario with someone who isn’t likely to bring a sense of equanimity and equality, if you can be the one to be mindful of your words and actions, than you have the tools to help create a positive communication experience. Here are some ways you can prevent exaggerating in your conversations:
Buddhism teaches that we all want the same outcome in life—to be understood, to feel good, to be happy. I have found this closely describes what we all want out of communication—to be understood, to feel good about it, and for it to lead to happiness.
We all know what it feels like to hurt and to feel joy; to feel attacked and to feel supported; to feel invisible and to feel seen; to feel frustrated and to feel fulfilled. When we can identify the feelings of others in ourselves, our conversations are more likely to become a dialogue where the desire is to help. Being a good communicator involves describing situations and your feelings about those situations as accurately as possible, and not exaggerating is a crucial component of this. Developing a practice that replaces exaggeration with equanimity is a good first step on the path.
The third rule of right speech, don’t gossip, actually runs contrary to what most of us see in our everyday lives. From celebrity websites, television shows, and magazines that beckon our attention in the grocery store checkout line, spreading information about others has become a regular part of daily life for many, not to mention a multimillion-dollar industry. With so much of it going on around us all the time, it’s easy to dismiss gossiping about others as acceptable.
And while celebrity gossip is easy to identify, gossip in our personal lives comes in many different forms, including things such as repeating something someone told you in confidence, sharing an assumption of others’ lives, or telling others about an issue you have with someone instead of addressing the problem directly. Ranging from small comments about a coworker’s performance, to complaining to your friends about your significant other or sharing stories that you were asked to keep private, for many people gossiping is so prevalent that they no longer notice it as such.
Some of us see gossiping as a method of bonding with others, and because of this we perpetuate the idea that gossiping is beneficial. Gossiping can quickly become habit-forming as the rush of being the one “in the know” can make us feel important, and we might find it hard to keep future information to ourselves. This need to express everything the minute it comes in means there’s little consideration given to whether what we have to say is kind, true, and helpful.
Take the following example:
Much like exaggeration, gossip creates a sense that you are either “better than” or “worse than” those you gossip about (typically the former). I believe that most gossip stems from envy, as at some point in the past we have been envious of the person we are now gossiping about. This is fairly obvious when it comes to celebrity gossip, as when famous people are shown to have normal human issues and shortcomings, we rejoice in the fact that they aren’t so “special” after all.
When we see our gossiping as a product of envy, we can instead challenge ourselves to replace it with one or two of the other four immeasurables mentioned earlier in this chapter, sympathetic joy and compassion.
Sympathetic joy is the practice of celebrating the accomplishments, achievements, or good tidings that come to another. This practice can be easy to do when it’s your children or other close family members you are rejoicing on behalf of. But it can be more difficult to rejoice for those who receive a benefit that you wanted for yourself. For instance, if a coworker gets a project or promotion you were hoping to receive, notice if you have a desire to gossip or belittle their achievement. If you do, instead make a conscious choice to celebrate his or her success instead. As you can imagine, this isn’t easy to do, but I can tell you that the benefits of practicing sympathetic joy instead of gossip are profound.
Try it for yourself and see what happens!
On the other side of the coin, instead of gossiping when others experience suffering, Buddhism invites us to bring compassion to the situation instead. In terms of communication, this can be applied by replacing words that make fun of or rejoice in the hard times that have befallen another with words that express compassion for those affected. Depending on the situation and our feelings about it, it may be that the best we can do to practice compassion is to remain silent when the opportunity to gossip presents itself—but even this is a big improvement on participating in gossiping, and it moves us more in alignment with our desire to communicate like a bodhisattva.
Lastly, there are also times we gossip and internally justify it because we think we are being helpful. For instance, when we converse about one family member to another under the auspices that we are “concerned,” but our real motive is not so benign. If what we’re saying is grounded in judgment and personal gain rather than the intention to be truly helpful, this practice of “don’t gossip” asks us to refrain from speaking at all.
But talking about others without their knowledge is sometimes inevitable, you might be thinking. If your sister wants to know how your great aunt Midge was when you visited last weekend, you will probably want to share how it went. If your boss asks how a new coworker is doing on your team, she’s going to expect some kind of feedback from you. So what’s the difference between gossip and simply sharing information? The easiest way to know for sure is to ask yourself, What if the person I’m talking about heard me? How would he or she feel? Furthermore, what energy are you creating inside yourself and others when you talk about people? They key is to never say something that you wouldn’t stand behind if the person were within earshot.
If we want to get out of the gossip cycle, it takes a very disciplined approach to do so—especially if we have formed a habit to bond with friends, coworkers, and family members in this way. Below are specific questions to start asking that can help stop the wheel.
Before you share information from someone else, ask yourself:
Although not participating in gossip can be difficult if we are only beginning to realize the full extent of how we gossip in everyday communication, the good news is that in most cases it only takes one person to change the conversation. We can do this by either not engaging when gossip is presented, changing the subject, or, in some cases, specifically stating, “Let’s talk about something else.” In so doing, we will be on our way to practicing the third rule of right speech. When our conversations are seen through the lens of “Is what I am about to say true, kind, and helpful?” we soon realize there’s no point to gossip except to maintain some illusory sense of superiority.
Use Helpful Language
The final rule of right speech, use helpful language, can perhaps best be explained and practiced by identifying and avoiding its opposite: unhelpful language.
Unhelpful language is anything that blocks or prevents either person in a conversation from understanding the other’s point of view. For example, if we look at past conversations that could be described as critical, confrontational, or even heated, we’re likely to see where the words used in those instances have been unhelpful.
When we begin an interaction by using words that criticize others for making mistakes, or blame them for how we feel, we have started the conversation on shaky footing. The situation is not likely to get better for us until we learn how to adjust our language. Similarly, if we raise our voice or bring a threatening tone to our words, it’s difficult to imagine the rest of the conversation being productive.
Unfortunately, we can’t always predict if a conversation is going to get heated or not, as sometimes we have very little time to understand what we’re feeling and needing and what the other person is feeling and needing. So instead we respond defensively or aggressively, or we go the other way and sulk, get quiet, or become uncooperative.
Helpful language is when we choose words that express ourselves in such a way that others don’t feel attacked or criticized. Little is gained if our words cause someone else to become defensive, or to feel as if they have to prove themselves or hide themselves.
Let’s look at this example:
It’s important to mention here that using helpful language not only applies in situations where we talk to others, but also when we talk to ourselves. It’s my experience that how we talk to ourselves sets the foundation for how we speak to others. If we’re always on our case for not meeting our own expectations, or judging ourselves for things that we perceive to be wrong or a mistake, it’s very likely that we’re going to think everyone else is judging and talking about us that way as well. The words we speak to ourselves over and over again become our beliefs, and if we are feeding ourselves a diet of negative self-talk, we create an environment of suffering.
Below is a list of descriptive phrases that people say about themselves, all of which aren’t very helpful.
While some of these statements may not seem like obviously hurtful speech, if we look closer, we can see that, really, what we’re saying to ourselves in some cases is pretty mean. In all of these instances we’re telling ourselves, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, that we aren’t good enough. And each time we put ourselves down, we build on the belief that we aren’t worthy or deserving. There’s a phrase in politics that says, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” If we sit in our insecurity and self-judgment, we stand for it as well.
Another way to think about helpful language is to consider the previously unmentioned of the four immeasurables—metta, or loving-kindness. While the first part of metta, love, gets most of the attention in our society, I would like to focus on the second part, kindness.
For instance, when someone is short, abrasive, or rude to you, how do you normally respond? For many people, the first inclination is to respond in kind instead of with kindness, but this can rarely be described as helpful. Making a conscious decision to be kind in our responses rather than reactionary is helpful. Oftentimes this can be as simple as overlooking another person’s remark and not letting it draw in our ego, instead responding in such a way that shows our intention is to be kind.
This sense of kindness can be extended to ourselves, especially when we “make a mistake” and our current habit is to unload a barrage of negative self-talk. We can start using more helpful language by paying attention to our words and the stories we’re telling ourselves over and over again. This will be discussed in great detail in the next section, Listen to Yourself. If we start speaking to ourselves in a kind, honest, nonjudgmental, and helpful way, then we are far more likely to create interactions with others that follow these same rules.
What to Remember
With the rules of right speech, we now have a foundational understanding of how a Buddhist communicates. She uses words that are true, balanced, necessary, and kind. She listens intently to others and to herself. And while she realizes that she is only responsible for what she says (not what others hear), she still takes great care to choose her words skillfully, so that the recipient is more likely to hear and understand them. She doesn’t speak negatively about people. She speaks from the heart. And once the words are said, she lets them go.
The rules of right speech are by design simple and easy to remember. But that doesn’t mean they’re simple and easy to apply. At this point you may be wondering, how does this actually work? It’s all good in theory, sure, but how do I apply these rules to my life? In heated discussions? How can I make sure I’m being honest, not making everything a big deal, giving up my own agenda, and choosing helpful language?
The rest of the book is devoted to my own concrete five-step practice that I have developed over the past few years. As you will see in the following pages, creating a new communication routine begins by making small changes. Many of the examples cover small communication topics, because what I’ve found is that by making changes in the smaller day-to-day conversations, we are better prepared to communicate more effectively when larger life issues come up. Also, if we master our day-to-day interactions, we can potentially prevent some of the larger communication issues from even arising!
The following visual shows the five steps, which we’ll learn more about in the rest of How to Communicate Like a Buddhist!
Transform the quality of your life when you read the rest of this book and learn how to communicate like a Buddhist!
Includes these tracks by the author, Cynthia Kane:
Cynthia Kane received her BA from Bard College and her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a certified meditation and mindfulness instructor and is dedicated to helping men and women change their communication routines so they feel understood at home and at work, in control of their words and reactions, calm in the face of difficult conversations, and confident living with an increased feeling of safety, energy, and appreciation for life. She lives in Washington, DC and offers workshops and personal coaching.
Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, BBC Travel, Yoga Journal, Refinery29, Woman’s Day, Pregnancy Magazine and the Huffington Post.
Her new book, How To Communicate Like A Buddhist, was released in spring of 2016.
Visit her at www.cynthiakane.com