Right Speech — An Essential Skill


“Say only what is well-intended, true, beneficial, timely, expressed without harshness or malice, and — ideally — what is wanted.”

Rick Hanson, Budhha’s Brain



Speak the truth kindly and consistently. That seems straightforward.

My love of advice columns proves that it’s by no means straightforward. Most letter writers are asking how do I tell . . . or do I tell . . . How do I tell my guests not to use the lovely starched cloth napkins I provided at dinner as handkerchiefs (from the Miss Manners column August 27)? Should I tell my friend that her husband flirted with me (every advice column ever)?

What we say matters. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us in Living Buddha, Living Christ that “unmindful speech can kill.”

And though we may have been told when kids that sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me, words can and do hurt.  Our brains process physical and emotional pain in the same area, so hurtful words indeed hurt.

We also evolved as social animals to fear at a primitive level being ostracized from groups since being a part of a group during the Pleistocene era kept us alive.  Anyone who’s ever been the victim of mean girls knows that words isolating us from friendships hurt at a deep level.

Even the nicest words—I love you—can be said with the wrong intention and cause harm. How many abusers tell their victims “I love you” in order to get them to stay in abusive relationships?

So our words matter—a lot. Our intentions behind our words matter—a lot.

My students probably get tired of me telling them all communication is governed by audience and purpose.  I didn’t know much about Buddhism when I started teaching, but that pretty much sums up Right Speech.

Mr. Darcy certainly gets this wrong in Pride and Prejudice in his first proposal. His intent seems pure. He wants Elizabeth to marry him. He starts out okay, proclaiming,  “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” But things quickly degenerate when he proves “not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride” and catalogs the many reasons why this is not a good match for him due to Elizabeth’s “inferiority.” Needless to say, she says no—as she should. 

Darcy’s intentions were muddied by his pride. His overt purpose of offering himself in marriage is marred by his underlying purpose of making sure Elizabeth knows he’s doing her a favor. And, to build upon Hanson’s description above, his words are not (yet) wanted.  At this moment in the story, Elizabeth believes Darcy dislikes her. She’s certainly not ready for a marriage proposal.

Darcy is telling the truth as he sees it, but he’s not engaging in Right Speech.

Right Speech depends on deep listening, something most of us aren’t very good at it, but it’s a skill, and we can learn. Too often in conversation, we are waiting for a break so that we can jump in with our own point, which means we’re listening for that pause, not to what is being said. We can be guilty of treating conversation as competition.

In a democracy, Right Speech and deep listening are crucial—and we currently are terrible at it. But, since it’s a skill, we can get better. I strongly recommend my friend Michael Austin’s book We Must Not Be Enemies. Mike is one of the most insightful thinkers I know and an excellent writer. He’s not talking about Buddhist Right Speech, but he explains why we must engage in civil discourse if democracy is to thrive.

We owe it to each other as family members, friends, and citizens to engage in Right Speech.



Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde

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