Monday, January 16, 2012

Right Speech: How Workable is it?

From Tricycle:

Right Speech: How Workable is it?

Views of the third step of the Eightfold Path from: Susan Piver Browne, Mirabai Bush, Roger Jackson, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Mudita Nisker, and Stephen Smith
In traditional Buddhist teaching, right speech is one of the steps on the Eightfold Noble Path. Its four guiding principles are:

1. Telling the truth

2. Not speaking harshly or cruelly

3. Not engaging in useless speech

4. Not gossiping

When I teach communication skills to individuals, couples and groups, I often suggest these principles as a guide to practicing mindfulness in everyday speech. By keeping the focus on the speaker, they encourage us to look within ourselves rather than to judge others. Following these four simple rules would eliminate much of the conflict, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings that result from careless speech.

I prefer the term skillful speech to right speech. Skillful suggests speech that is acquired through practice. The term right speech is often misunderstood as “I’m right and you’re wrong.” This kind of polarized thinking is exactly the opposite of the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching. Right/wrong arguments harden people’s positions, leading them to lose sight of what is really important to them. I have even heard Buddhist couples argue over which of them was using “right speech,” evidence that when people are caught up in anger even the dharma can be used as a club.

To avoid the polarity of right/wrong speech, I teach the concept of intentional speech - that is, being mindful of one’s purpose in speaking. When people are aware of their intention and express their thoughts and feelings truthfully and with kindness, they are likely to achieve their aim and increase compassionate understanding. When they are unaware of their intention, they are most likely to forget the Buddha’s four principles of right speech and resort to lying or stretching the truth to make a point, shouting hurtful and unnecessary words, and wasting time talking behind each other’s backs.

The discrepancy between how one wants to live one’s life and how one actually lives is particularly distressing to my clients on a Buddhist path who come to me for counseling in my private practice. Like most of us, they find it is easier to behave in accordance with higher principles when they’re alone rather than when they’re with people they live with daily. It is the difficulties of familiar life - petty irritations and ego clashes - that present the greatest tests of our belief and commitment to right speech.

Recently, I worked with a young couple, both serious students of the dharma, who were disturbed to find themselves squabbling over household rules. Neat and orderly surroundings were important to Stacey, and she wanted the dishes washed as soon as they finished eating. Jim (fictional names), on the other hand, often left the dishes in the sink to clean up later. Their arguments over the dishes began to escalate, as evidenced by the following conversation they reported to me:

Stacey: How many times have I asked you not to leave your dishes in the sink? You know I can’t stand to have dirty dishes around. Why do you keep doing this?

Jim: Can’t you see that I’m trying to finish this assignment? Why does everything have to be done according to your time schedule? Doesn’t mine count? Now stop nagging about this.

Stacey: I’m not nagging. I’m telling you that I don’t want to clean up after you.

Jim: When did I ever ask you to do that? I always clean up after myself. The difference is that you’re compulsive about it and I’m not.

Stacey: I can’t talk to you. You discount whatever I say.

Using the four principles of skillful speech as our guide, we can see where Stacey and Jim lost focus of what they wanted to achieve and worked against themselves.

1. Telling the truth: Most people believe that they should speak the truth, but which truth? One’s person’s truth is not necessarily the other person’s truth. In this case, Stacey and Jim made the common error of confusing the facts of the situation with their assumptions about the situation. The fact of this situation was the dirty dishes in the sink. What those dishes meant to each one, however, was open to interpretation. Stacey assumed that Jim’s leaving the dishes in the sink meant that Jim expected her to clean up after him. Moreover, when he didn’t do it, she assumed he dismissed her wishes. Jim reacted to her assumption with one of his own: that Stacey was compulsive.

Many disagreements result from people being unaware of the other person’s assumptions and often of their own as well. Articulating assumptions illuminates each person’s truth, allowing them to separate fact from assumption. Once Stacey and Jim learned to be mindful of these distinctions, they were able to think about how to resolve their disagreement.

2. Not speaking harshly: When people are in conflict, they often express their anger or annoyance by making sweeping accusations or trading insults, as Stacey and Jim did. Learning to express themselves clearly and firmly, however, they were able to resolve the situation swiftly.

Stacey: Would you mind rinsing the breakfast dishes in the sink and putting them in the dishwasher?

Jim: I’ll do it in a little while.

Stacey: I’d appreciate your doing it now. Looking at them really bothers me.

Jim: I’m right in the middle of something. If it’s bothering you, maybe you can wash them now, and I’ll do the dinner dishes.

In this dialogue, Stacey and Jim stated clearly and truthfully what they wanted without insulting each other. Stacey expressed what bothered her and Jim responded in a way that showed he respected her feelings and that he did not expect her to clean up after him.

3. Useless speech: When we are mindful of our intentions, we are less likely to engage in useless speech. Some individuals, for example, feel compelled to blurt out their anger whenever they are upset. Later, after the dust settles, they may see the situation differently and regret what they said. In my communication work, I ask clients if anyone consistently displayed angry behavior when they were growing up. Typically, it is a parent, and I suggest tongue-in-cheek that they may be channeling him or her. This suggestion often helps clients understand that their behavior demonstrates their conditioning more than their choice.

Changing behavior requires self-awareness. I encourage my clients to pause when they recognize an angry thought and to ask themselves: Will expressing this thought be useful? Will it help me achieve the outcome that I want?

4. Not gossiping: Gossip is often untrue, cruel, and useless, and those who follow the Buddha’s first three principles of right speech would find little to gossip about. I emphasize intention as the overriding principle of skillful speech and self-questioning as the means by which we can test our intention. For example, when we repeat unflattering information about others, is our intention to discredit them or make them appear foolish? Do we want to make ourselves look good and them bad?

Inseparable from right speech is good listening. When we talk without hearing the other person, we are engaged in a monologue, not a dialogue. Staying open to others’ thoughts and feelings enhances understanding and harmony. The more skillfully we speak and listen, the more skillfully we live our lives. And the more we can bring the teachings of the Buddha into the world through our words.

Mudita Nisker is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Counselor in private practice in Oakland, California. She also conducts communication skills trainings locally and nationally.

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