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The Disappearing Art Of Mindful Communication

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megaphoneby Charlotte Bell

In 1992, George H.W. Bush committed what was considered a fatal error during a debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. As an audience member asked him a question, he glanced at his watch. The gesture was seen as rude and inexcusable, one more indication that this president, born into wealth, was out of touch and uninterested in the rest of us.

Fast forward to the infamous two-minute clip of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz shouting insults at each other during a recent debate. A candidate glancing at his watch would not even be noticed these days.

Disdain for political correctness has taken over the national conversation, leading to the rise of Donald Trump, a candidate whose bigotry and hateful words only elevate him in the eyes of his fans. His bigotry has emboldened other candidates to sling verbal excrement freely, while social media and the rise of anonymous commenting have encouraged the rest of us to unleash toxins into the conversation.

This has left me longing for the days when a candidate for the presidency could be chastised for something as subtle as looking at his/her watch. Consternation with our deteriorating ability to speak to each other with civility and respect has led me to commit even more deeply to a practice I began almost 20 years ago: right speech.

Fueled by a conversational faux pas I made that still makes me cringe, I decided to make speaking mindfully a core practice back in the ’90s. The effort to speak mindfully seems to be an endless learning experience, one I suspect I will never master.

The Buddha placed Right Speech third on the Eightfold Path, just after Right View and Right Intention, and ahead of Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

Speech is powerful. I’ve learned over the years that speaking mindfully is not as easy as it sounds. The Buddha outlined five parameters for speech that I’ve listed below. Because mindful speaking is a very complicated practice, what I offer here is just a short synopsis, a few thoughts to consider.

Truthfulness

Speaking truthfully means refraining from speaking what isn’t true. This includes not only outright lying, but also shading or exaggerating the truth, and lying by omission. Sometimes we lie to keep ourselves out of trouble, or we exaggerate to make ourselves look a little better—maybe padding our resumes or taking credit where it isn’t due. While little white lies seem harmless, telling them reinforces the habit of not telling the truth. The more we get away with telling little white lies, the easier it is to do it again.

Speaking truthfully simplifies our lives. If you’ve ever told a lie and had to then tell other lies to keep propping up the original one, you know how complicated this can be. Telling the truth eliminates a whole lot of stress.

Practice speaking only what is true. Notice when your mind wants to exaggerate or shade the truth.

Refraining from Gossip

Gossiping seems to be an addiction. It’s so often what our conversations turn to. But most of the time, gossip serves only to divide. Talking trash about people who aren’t present isolates them, without giving them an opportunity to defend themselves. It is always one-sided.

There are times, of course, when speaking about a person who isn’t present out of concern for their welfare is appropriate. It is also appropriate to talk about others when the intention is to bring people together. Malicious gossip is a toxic pattern however, and serves no purpose other than to create division.

Try not speaking negatively about anyone who isn’t present. Is this challenging? How does it change your conversations?

Refraining from Harsh Speech

We’ve all heard the old trope about sticks and stones. I would counter that words do have tremendous potential to harm us. The residue from another’s harsh words can last for years. Angry and harsh speech is an act of violence. When we speak harshly to another person, the point is to inflict pain. Quite often angry speech can spiral out of control, so that what spills out isn’t even true.

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that when we feel the impulse to speak out of anger, that we instead step back and ask if we can continue our conversation later. This gives our anger a chance to cool so that we can return to the conversation at a time when we can speak with more clarity and respect.

Refraining from Useless Speech

There’s a Pali word for useless speech that is a prime example of onomatopoeia: sampappalapa. Sampappalapa is the act of talking just to talk, inserting oneself into a conversation with something unrelated or unnecessary, often just to assert our presence.

As an introvert, I’m not a person who tends to prattle on or interrupt conversations. However, as a person who grew up in a family that often spoke in snark, in certain company, I can definitely toss out one-liners with the best of them. The longer I practice right speech, the more I realize that most of these one-liners aren’t necessary, and sometimes they can even get me into trouble. Sometimes they can be hurtful.

When you’re in conversation, consider whether what you’re about to say actually adds to what is being said.

Speaking at the Appropriate Time

There are appropriate and inappropriate times for certain types of speech. For example, while I confess to a bit of a swearing habit in casual conversation, I (mostly) refrain from using possibly offensive words when I’m teaching yoga. Or at least, I try. I also try to tamp down my snarky tendencies in professional situations.

An associate of mine believes it is important to tell it like it is. While it is a worthy goal to maintain honesty in relationships, personal grievances are best aired in one-on-one conversation. Time and again, this person has called down others—including me—with personal grievances during work-related situations in front of other colleagues. This not only humiliates the object of her ire, but it also makes others extremely uncomfortable as they witness what should be a personal matter between two people.

When you feel a need to air a grievance or make a snide comment, consider not only whether it is necessary at all, but also whether the situation is appropriate.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that practicing mindful speech, without fail, causes me to speak less and listen more. This is probably a positive thing. Listening begets learning. And considering your words cultivates deeper awareness. The inclusion of Right Speech on the Eightfold Path means that its practice is essential for liberating our minds.

Social media is a great place to practice right speech. Writing allows you to consider your words. I never comment anonymously. I don’t say anything online that I don’t feel comfortable owning. Invariably, this makes me more mindful of the possible effects of my words on people who may read them.

If you choose to practice mindful speaking, you will likely stumble sometimes. I still sometimes say things I wish I hadn’t. Like so many things worth exploring, the practice of Right Speech is a process, one that I believe can make our world a kinder, more welcoming place for all of us.

Here are some time-honored questions to ask yourself when you feel compelled to speak:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it useful?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it the right time?

~

Charlotte Bell is a yoga and meditation teacher, oboist and writer living in Salt Lake City. She writes for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’s blog and Catalyst Magazine, and has published two books with Rodmell Press: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators.

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17 comments… add one
  • Thank you Charlotte for this thoughtful and beautifully written article! You returned a balance to this blog that I have been needing. I always appreciate your articles!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Genevieve. Mindful speech has been foremost in my mind for the past few months. I think that we sometimes take for granted how powerful our speech is in its potential to bring happiness or harm. Writing this article served to remind me of how important weighing our words really is.

  • Abby

    This is so timely. We should all practice right speech.

  • This was definitely inspired by the vitriolic election cycle—not only by the candidates but by all the meanness I’ve encountered in online conversations. I hope we can get past this. Mean-spirited speech only begets a mean-spirited retort.

  • I’ve read literally trillions of articles like this, from people like the other commenters on this thread (who are known to be dorks, btw, if you hadn’t heard), and I feel the need to post a meaningless negative remark here to make you feel bad for no particular reason!

  • pal

    i don’t think the current vitriol is lack of political correctness, but acceptance of disingenuous talking points, a natural consequence of the partisan/tribal/with-or-aginst mentality driving most media and politics. the disingenuous is always true, and less a lie by omission than a distortion based on limiting perspective; whether you belive the point or not depends on if you you already share or agree with the perspective, while considering other perspectives ignorable. we can ask ourselves the four questions, and use them as guides for evaluating other people’s speech/actions, but unless we allow our own perspective an expanse to note disingenuousness, the ‘true’ start is at best a stall.

  • Good blog.

  • Lovely admonitions, Charlotte, though I wonder if you would have made your remarks regarding Messieurs Bush, Trump, Cruz, and Rubio face-à-face.

    When my 11 children were little, they committed this quotation to memory and wrote it in Palmer cursive (a beautiful mindfulness practice, in my opinion):
    If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek,
    Five things observe with care,
    To whom you speak,
    Of whom you speak,
    And how, and when, and where.
    ~Caroline (Ma) Ingalls

    They were only allowed to curse in French and Latin and to use Shakespearian and Captain Haddock (Tintin) insults.

    When I began teaching yoga to maximum-security incarcerated youth, the occasional curse word was spoken, and I remained calm and admonished, “Pardon your French.” The teens quickly took to using this phrase to correct one another.

    I see that you are an oboist! (I am a cellist.) I have a dark confession to make: Years ago, when teaching music history to home-educated teens at a supplementary school, I would occasionally remind them to never date an oboist, mostly as a way to make sure they were paying attention to the lecture. But it also led to a discussion of the effects of long hours spent making reeds and whether or not enough oxygen gets to an oboist’s brain with the small reed aperture involved. I realize now that I probably would not have joked about this if an oboist were present. 😉

    Less seems to be more regarding many aspects of life (excluding family size, in my case), including speech.

    I always appreciate your offerings here and wish I could take a class from you!

  • Alas, thank you for sharing sampappalapa! That made my day!

  • Great pointers for those looking how to improve their communication skills … excellent post!

  • Andy A.

    Hi Charlotte! Your article reminds me of a story shared by author Robert Fulghum in his book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” and I’d like it to share it with you. He talks about how a group of Solomon Islanders in the Pacific practice a unique form of logging where they have woodsmen they believe to have special powers yell insults at a tree. No axes or other special equipment. They just yell at a tree for 30 days, and it’s believed the yelling will kill the spirit of the tree. I don’t know if this is even true, but the message is clear. As Fulghum says, yelling at living things kills their spirit. “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”

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