Wise Versus Unwise Speech

people speaking at a podium

Digital art by Tracy Ochester

A lesson I’m continually learning through my mindfulness practice is the skill of discerning wise from unwise speech. How do I know when I’m speaking necessary truth as I understand it versus complaining, gossiping, punishing, or self-dealing? Is now the right time to say something – and if so, what’s the best way to say it?

Most of us can very easily fall into a habit of saying too much, but I suspect I actually err on the side of saying too little. Having worked as a psychologist for many years, I’m now well-practiced at upholding confidentiality and limiting my own sharing of personal information. The problem is, there are many times in daily life when appropriate sharing might clear up misunderstandings or prevent developing problems from snowballing. It can be very difficult to know when to speak up and when to stay silent, who needs to know and how much should be shared.

I wish I had simple, definitive answers to determine what I do and don’t say and how and when to speak, but I’m a work in progress and life is complicated. What I can do is share some observations I’ve made along the way that seem to be useful. May they be useful to you as well.

Connect With Intentions

In the heat of the moment I often forget to check in with the motivations behind an urge to speak. I succumb to internal and external pressure to respond quickly in conversation. Pauses are anxiety provoking for many folks – I can see them becoming restless in spaces of silence. On top of this, taking a few moments to consider can be interpreted as a lack of confidence or indecisiveness. Sometimes it seems like people might prefer me to be confidently wrong than to admit I’m not sure.

When I remember to, I find it useful to ask myself some questions around the urge to speak. Is the intention behind my words compassionate – am I aiming to contribute to ease and joy, or decrease suffering? Are my words meant to protect us all from unnecessary harm, to stand up for injustice, or set a needed boundary? Or, if I’m really honest with myself, do I detect a desire to:

  • avoid my own discomfort or assuage my own anxiety at the expense of higher values
  • elevate myself above others in my own eyes (as in self-righteousness) or in the eyes of others
  • punish or exact revenge
  • deflect taking appropriate responsibility (as in blame)
  • gain advantage over others

Some of the conversations that are most fraught for me involve: 1) small talk, 2) inconvenient truths, and 3) confiding in or consulting a trusted person about relationship concerns. I wonder, is it a bad habit to indulge in surfacey chit-chat? If people react poorly or don’t like something I’ve said, am I practicing unwise speech? Is expressing my concerns about another a form of gossip?

Going back to the roots of mindfulness has been very helpful to my understanding. In the Buddhist tradition, “divisive speech” consists of stories intended to “break people apart”. Seeking trusted relationship advice, on the other hand, has the intention of contributing to greater unity and harmony. While “idle speech” has no goal, “small talk” to me has a goal of setting people at ease. In the Subhasita Sutta, wise speech is that which “brings no evil to others.” When delivered gently and with compassionate intent, the truth is ultimately liberating, even when its hard to hear in the short-term.

Choose Wisely

Maybe one of the hardest parts of wise speech is choosing words that clearly convey my intentions without causing undue harm. Anything can be triggering or offensive and sometimes people replace what has actually been said with their own interpretations and assumptions. The best I can do is try to understand the limitations of my own views, expose myself to other views, and take time and care in expressing myself – especially when the stakes are high.

It can also be tricky to choose the right time to say something. Sometimes its important to seize the moment, but other times things need to settle before messages can be received. We tend not to absorb information well when our emotions are very high, yet the science of operant conditioning reveals we learn best from immediate over delayed consequences. Remembering that timing matters and taking a moment to consider whether its the right time may stack the deck in favor of a message being well-received.

Notice the Results and Learn

Often we quickly move on from our various interactions as if they’re discrete and wholly independent moments in time. Yet all of our actions, no matter how small or trivial seeming, have consequences and ripple effects. This means that its possible to learn useful lessons by paying attention to how things play out. I try to remember to observe the after-effects of my words so that I might discover what’s truly skillful and what is not.

The ancient traditions that provide the foundation for modern mindfulness practices exclude from “right speech” lying and abusive language. According to these traditions, a well-spoken person choses words that are truthful, timely, and come from a place of goodwill. If I can remember only these three things in any situation that arises, I’ve found my conversations tend to go better for everyone involved.

Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.

Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

– “Speech to the Young” by Gwendolyn Brooks

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