The Buddha was unequivocal about the importance of how we employ our human capacity for speech and verbal interaction. Right Speech, also called Wise Speech or Virtuous Speech, is speech that gives rise to peace and happiness in oneself and others. 

Right Speech is one of the Five Precepts for ethical conduct, along with protecting life and not killing, taking only what is freely offered and not stealing, using one’s sexual energy in ways that do not harm oneself or others, and refraining from the use of intoxicants to the point that they cloud the mind. The Buddha taught that ethical conduct is the foundation of meditation practice, and is also the ground upon which our life and our spiritual journey rest. The Buddha called these precepts for ethical conduct “The Five Gifts,” because by undertaking these trainings we offer a supreme gift to other beings and to ourselves:  the gift of freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.

What is Right Speech?

In addition to being one of the Five Precepts, Right Speech is also one of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path, along with Right View, Right Intention, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Here again the word “Right” is not a moral judgment to be contrasted with bad or wrong, but means “leading to happiness for oneself and others.” The Noble Eightfold Path is a path to liberation, which is described as happiness, inner peace, and freedom from suffering in this lifetime. It is also the path that releases us from future rebirths into realms of suffering.

The Buddha was precise in his description of Right Speech. He defined it as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.” In the vernacular this means not lying, not using speech in ways that create discord among people, not using swear words or a cynical, hostile or raised tone of voice, and not engaging in gossip. Re-framed in the positive, these guidelines urge us to say only what is true, to speak in ways that promote harmony among people, to use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to speak mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful.

Right Speech is a mindfulness practice.

Mindful speech

Right Speech is a mindfulness practice. By undertaking this practice, we commit to greater awareness of our body, mind, and emotions. Mindfulness makes it possible to recognize what we are about to say before we say it, and thus offers us the freedom to choose when to speak, what to say, and how to say it. With mindfulness, we see that the heart is the ground from which our speech grows. We learn to restrain our speech in moments of anger, hostility, or confusion, and over time, to train the heart to more frequently incline towards wholesome states such as love, kindness and empathy. From these heart states Right Speech naturally arises.

The practice of Right Speech requires that we attend to karma, or the law of cause and effect. We repeatedly observe that different kinds of speech create different kinds of results. Using speech in certain ways assures suffering, while speaking in other ways creates happiness. There is a Tibetan prayer that says, “May you have happiness and the causes of happiness. May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.” When we understand the workings of cause and effect, we can appreciate how profound this prayer is.

The teaching about Right Speech assumes imperfection. Our “mistakes” are a vital part of our learning.  We need to lie, exaggerate, embellish, use harsh and aggressive speech, engage in useless banter, and speak at inappropriate times, in order to experience how using speech in these ways creates tension in the body, agitation in the mind, and remorse in the heart. We also discover how unskillful speech degrades personal relationships and diminishes the possibility of peace in our world.

Right Listening

Because Right Speech figures so prominently in the fundamental teachings of the Buddha, we know that what we might call Right Listening, as the complement to Right Speech, is also very important.  But what exactly is Right Listening? 

Webster’s dictionary defines ‘listen’ as “to pay attention to sound” and “to hear with thoughtful attention.” Yet effective listening means paying attention to more than just sound, and therefore requires that we use more than just our ears. As we are increasingly able to bring mindfulness to ordinary human interaction, we find that listening means attending to our physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions, as well as to the voice, facial expressions, gestures, pauses, underlying meanings, and rich nuances that accompany the spoken words of others.

This type of listening is what Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “deep listening.” It is what physician Rachel Naomi Remen calls “generous listening,” what Buddhist teacher and Hospice trainer Joan Halifax calls “listening from the heart,” and what the Quakers call “Devout Listening.” Like any other mindfulness practice, Right Listening is both a skill and a way of being. In her book The Zen of Listening, Rebecca Sharif writes, “Listening is one of our greatest personal natural resources, yet it is by far one of our most undeveloped abilities.”

Right Speech has been, for me, the most difficult of the Five Precepts, and the trickiest aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. Everyday life, whether at home, at work, or in the community, offers endless opportunities for bringing mindfulness and compassion to the arena of verbal interaction with others. And despite many years of practice, it remains a formidable challenge to have Right Speech and Right Listening prevail in our family environment. 

Right Speech in Family

When my children Emilio and Claudia were little, we successfully used communication tools that I had encountered doing group work and conflict resolution with adults. Family meetings, a talking stone, and the commitment not to interrupt one another facilitated our communication. However, as my children grew, both speaking and listening became increasingly challenging, especially when we attempted to address unskillful behaviors or conflicting points of view. I realized that we had to more consciously create the conditions for Right Listening. For without the capacity to listen deeply, all the Right Speech in the world was of little use.

About the time Emilio entered sixth grade, a combination of influences, including what he aptly named “raging hormones,” converged at once. Suddenly it was much more difficult for him to listen to what I wanted to say.  It became equally difficult for me to tolerate his unwillingness to listen. And of course, the more conflicted our points of view, the more impossible was our communication. The patience, respect, and mutuality we had enjoyed for years disappeared. The speaking and listening skills we had so carefully cultivated were replaced by mistrust, impatience and defensiveness.

Time after time, I would approach him in what I thought was an open and friendly way, employ what I thought was Right Speech, and find myself face-to-face with a being I barely recognized. Within seconds, I would be left staring at my son’s back as he stormed out of the room, arms flailing in the air and a stream of incomprehensible sounds pouring forth from his mouth.

I consulted other parents, as well as professionals, and was assured that my son was exhibiting normal adolescent behavior. I was told that our relationship was undergoing normal developmental changes.  Yet I experienced my son’s behavior, my own frustration, and the deterioration of our relationship as acutely painful.  I was certain that something far more skillful and productive was possible. I was determined to search until I found it.  Thus began a long process of experimentation in Right Speech and Right Listening, a challenging and creative process that continues to evolve, always yielding a combination of frustrating setbacks and fruitful rewards.

A pivotal realization came to me a few months after this destructive pattern first appeared.

Emilio’s behavior was so reactive and extreme, I felt like I was being attacked. Thus, it had to be a response to him feeling attacked. Clearly, we had to address this underlying problem. I needed his help to figure out how to change my approach so that he felt safe and not threatened.

In a calm moment, he agreed to talk with me about our communication problems.  He confirmed that he felt criticized and attacked when I tried to talk with him about conflicts or difficulties, however small.  We agreed I needed to change my strategy so that he might remain open to what I wanted to say.

Over the course of a few weeks, we discussed a number of “preliminaries” that could help set the stage for more skillful interactions. Emilio said that rather than launching into a difficult subject, he wanted me to tell him what I wished to talk about, and then ask him when would be a good time to discuss it.  This was a reasonable and intelligent request, which I readily honored. 

We agreed that if he didn’t want to talk about a particular topic when I presented it to him, it was his responsibility to propose a time to talk, and it needed to be scheduled for within a few days of when I approached him. I proposed that when we discussed a difficult topic, he could decide whether to respond immediately to the issue raised, or think it over and respond in a few hours or a few days. He liked this suggestion. He said that knowing he didn’t have to reply right away freed up more attention for listening, decreased the sense of emergency about problems, and allowed him time to come up with a more thoughtful response.

In subsequent conversations we talked about his defensiveness during difficult interactions. I explained that because defensiveness is an automatic reaction that almost everyone exhibits, we are easily tricked into believing it is necessary and useful. And while it might serve a limited function when we face threats and enemies, in conversations with loved ones defensiveness precludes effective communication. Emilio said he would feel less defensive if he could better trust my intention.

I assured him that my intention was to improve our communication and nourish our relationship, rather than criticize him or exercise parental authority. We talked about how I could demonstrate this intention. He asked that I introduce a potentially difficult conversation with a reminder like “I love you Emilio and I hope we can together resolve a problem that has come up.” We agreed that he could use the same preliminary techniques whenever he wanted to talk with me about something that I might not want to talk about.

Having established these guidelines, we began to address how to remain open when we feel the impulse to shut down. I gave Emilio examples of how I use my attention, directed internally, to counter my resistance in conversations with adults. For example, I consciously feel my breathing, attempt to relax tightness in my body, and try not to formulate my response while the other person is speaking. I asked him if he could come up with five such strategies that might work for him.

A few minutes later he handed me two small paste-it notes, upon which he had written in miniscule print the following ten ideas: breathe, remind myself that I’m not being punished, try to relax, try to open my body to your words, don’t wave my hands around or roll my eyes or mutter, be aware of where my hands are, don’t interrupt or say sarcastic things like “I didn’t do that,” “So what?” or “What’s the problem with that?,” leave a short silence before responding to what you say, count to five slowly inside my head, and answer you at another time or another day. 

I was happy that we had gotten this far, and over the course of the next few months there was a definite improvement in our ability to speak and listen to each other. Yet communication continued to break down with some frequency, and thus we continued to explore ways to improve the situation.

I attempted to put the communication issues that Emilio and I were experiencing into a larger context. I talked with him about how important and complex listening is, and how the inability to communicate with patience and respect not only damages interpersonal relationships but also contributes to the many problems threatening our world. I told Emilio that if we could continue to improve our communication, it would not only benefit our relationship, but would likely serve each of us in all present and future relationships as well.  I said that in my experience, listening to something I don’t want to hear is completely different from listening to something I find pleasing. Emilio readily agreed that what I call “listening under stress” indeed requires additional skills.

To better illustrate this point, we invented a listening “game.” I gave Emilio four blank index cards, and asked him to write four sentences that he would be happy to hear me say to him. This was easy. He wrote: “Emilio, your teacher says you’re doing an excellent job in school.” “We’re going to pick up our puppy Luna.” “We’re going to Virginia to visit your cousins.” “You’re really doing well in Capoiera!” (Capoiera is an Afro- Brazilian martial art that he was studying at the time). When he finished, I gave him four more index cards, and asked him to write four things he would not want me to say to him.

He seemed a bit puzzled, so we talked about what kinds of things most people do not want to hear.  He said, “criticisms and put-downs.” I added that most people react just as defensively to hearing another person say something they don’t agree with as they do to personal criticism. With this hint, he quickly wrote his next four sentences: “How come your bedroom is so small?” “The middle school you’re going to next year is a horrible school.“ “Border Collies are the worst breed of dogs.” “I heard that your sister was adopted in Bolivia. Why wasn’t she adopted in the United States?” 

Next I asked him to write four neutral sentences. This proved more challenging, and I offered examples of the kinds of things that might be neutral. He then wrote: “I think it’s going to rain.” “Dad’s planting grass in the backyard.” “Claudia is sweeping the kitchen floor.” “Last night’s rain flooded the trail by the river.” 

By this time Emilio was wondering what we were going to do with the index cards. I said I would read them to him one at a time, so that he could feel his reactions to the different kinds of statements. I asked him if I should read the four sentences in each category together, or read all the sentences randomly. He replied, “Random,” so I shuffled the cards before placing them face down on the carpet.  I read them aloud one by one, pausing in between for Emilio to feel his reaction to each sentence.

Not surprisingly, for the different negative statements, Emilio reported, “I’m closed up inside and don’t want to hear it, “ “My muscles are tense,” “My feelings are hurt,” “My chest is tight and rigid,” “I make myself hard inside,” “I want to interrupt and tell you to shut up,” “My reply feels stuck in my throat,” and “My skin feels hot.”

In response to positive statements, Emilio noticed, “Flickers of happiness rise up in my body,” “There’s a lot more life inside,” “I feel space inside, like a big gate swinging open,” “My muscles are soft and relaxed,” “My body feels energetic, like it wants to suddenly move,” and “There’s joy in my mind and heart.”

In response to the neutral statements, Emilio said his body, breath, and heartbeat felt relaxed but not excited, and that he had to try harder to notice these physical sensations. 

Emilio was surprised by how many reactions he had to the sentences, given that he himself had written them a few minutes earlier! His observation highlighted how challenging it is to control our reactions when we don’t know what’s coming. We talked about how reactive thoughts, emotions, and sensations happen to everyone. I said that being more aware of these reactions enables us to know ourselves better, to create a little space in which to decide what we want to do or say, and thus to more consciously choose our behavior.

In a subsequent conversation Emilio and I came up with another idea for how to keep communication open. We bought a special notebook for writing about things that needed to be discussed but that we didn’t want to talk about.  I joked that this was our pen pal book. We agreed upon guidelines for how we would use this book. We predicted it would more likely be me initiating written communication with him, but that either of us could initiate communication. We would keep the book in a neutral place. The person who wrote an entry would place the notebook inside the doorway of the other person’s room.

It was the responsibility of the recipient to offer a response within 24 hours. The notebook we purchased for this purpose had a small blank area on the cover for a student to write their name. I asked Emilio what he thought we should name our book. He replied, “’I love you Emilio’ Pen Pal Journal,” and then wrote this title on the cover of the book.

We’ve had this notebook for about two years. It’s not nearly full, and we could have benefited from using it more frequently. But without a doubt, it has served us both well.  It has entries and responses from each of us.  In addition to written text, Emilio’s color drawings of his body illustrate his emotions and physical sensations. His sketches of his brain show how his mind feels when he’s struggling to control his speech or behavior, and his line charts demonstrate how rapidly his anger rises. We have each clarified misunderstandings and explained why we acted with impatience or disrespect. We have each offered apologies, requested forgiveness, pardoned transgressions, and declared our love and caring. I’ve occasionally laughed out loud while writing my entries or reading Emilio’s. I’ve also wept, at times from sadness, at other times from the bittersweet happiness of love and connection.

Of course, there continue to be times when communication is impossible. I approach Emilio with a friendly heart and do my best with Right Speech, but within seconds, or maybe a few minutes, the conversation abruptly ends. He marches out of the room, and we both feel hurt, frustrated, and angry. I struggle to remain calm and not exacerbate the situation with reactivity I will later regret.

My strategies of feeling my breath, naming my thoughts and emotions, or reciting compassion or equanimity phrases help, but not enough. I’ve told myself for years to not take it personally, but it’s been hard to figure out how not to take it personally. I needed something else that could help me in the moment of difficulty, a strategy to decrease my identification with a self who is being mistreated. I finally found what works for me.  It is a pause for one conscious breath, and then the simple phrase said silently to myself, “This is the nature of adolescence.” 

I don’t know why these particular words are so effective for me. This phrase has become a powerful ally in my effort to retain some measure of acceptance and balance in times of conflict with my son. Flare-ups still occur, and they are upsetting, but they are less upsetting and less personal than they used to be, and we recover from them more quickly and more easily.

Emilio and I have come a long way, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. That’s why Right Speech and Right Listening are life-long mindfulness practices. I am reminded of a quote by hospice worker Christine Longaker. It’s from her chapter in an anthology called The Wisdom of Listening, edited by Mark Brady. She writes, “You must listen with your whole being, not just your ears.

Listen with your body, your heart, your eyes, your energy, your total presence. Listen in silence, without interrupting. Fill any spaces of silence between you with love. The moments when I can listen like this, to my children or to anyone else, are rare.  Yet these words inspire me with a sense of possibility, and for this I am grateful.

The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Sharif
The Wisdom of Listening by Mark Brady
In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom by Gregory Kramer 

[This story was first published in 2008]

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