Speak Wisely

Speak Wisely

What are you saying?

The Practice:
Speak wisely.

Why?

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Ah, not really.

Often it’s words – and the tone that comes with them – that actually do the most damage. Just think back on some of the things that have been said to you over the years – especially those said with criticism, derision, shaming, anger, rejection, or scorn – and the impacts they’ve had on your feelings, hopes and ambitions, and sense of yourself.

Words can hurt since the emotional pain networks in your brain overlap with physical pain networks. (The effects of this intertwining go both ways. For example, studies have shown that receiving social support reduces the perceived intensity of physical pain, and – remarkably – that giving people Tylenol reduced the unpleasantness of social rejection.)

Besides their momentary effects, these hurts can linger – even for a lifetime. The residues of hurtful words sift down into emotional memory to cast long shadows over the inner landscape of your mind.

Plus they can alter a relationship forever. Just think about the ripple effects of things said between parents and children, from one sibling to another, or among in-laws. Or between friends. For example, a good buddy once castigated me morally when we disagreed politically. We tried to talk it through, but the fact that he showed he could indeed go to that place led me to take a step a back; we’re still friends, but our relationship is smaller now since I steer clear of some major subjects.

So do what you can to protect yourself from hurtful words from others. Prevent them in the first place, if possible, by “talking about talking” with others (perhaps share the guidelines below). If that doesn’t work, try to see the underlying pain and needs that could have triggered them to “let’er rip,” put their words in perspective, turn toward resources in yourself and in your true friends, and shift the size or nature of the relationship if that’s appropriate (and possible).

And on your own side of the street – my subject in this JOT, because you have much more influence over yourself than you have over others – speak wisely.

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How?

I’ve gotten a great deal of personal value from six guidelines offered 2500 years ago by the Buddha; you’ll recognize their essence – sometimes expressed in the same words – in other traditions or philosophies.

From this perspective, wise speech always has five characteristics. It is:

  • Well-intended – Comes from goodwill, not ill will; constructive; aimed to build up, not tear down
  • True – Not overstated, taken out of context, or blown-up out of proportion
  • Beneficial – Helps things get better, not worse (even if it takes a while)
  • Timely – Not driven by impulsivity; rests on a foundation that creates a good chance of it being truly heard
  • Not harsh – It could be firm, pointed, or intense; it could confront mistreatment or injustice; anger could be acknowledged; but it is not prosecutorial, nasty, inflammatory, dismissive, disdainful, or snarky.

And if possible, it is:

  • Wanted by the other person – If they don’t want to hear it, you may just not need to say it; but there will be other cases when you need to speak for yourself whether the other person likes it or not – and then it’s more likely to go well if you follow the first five guidelines.

Of course, there is a place for talking loosely with others when it’s comfortable to do so. And realistically, in the first moments of an argument, sometimes people stray out of bounds.

But in important, tricky, or delicate interactions – or as soon as realize you’ve gone over the line – then it’s time to communicate with care, and with wisdom. The six guidelines do not guarantee that the other person will respond the way you want. But they will raise the odds of a good outcome, plus you will know in your heart that you stayed in control of yourself, had good intentions, and have nothing to feel guilty about later.

Reflect on the six guidelines as you consider how to approach an important conversation. Then, be natural: if you simply speak from your heart, have good intentions, and keep returning to the truth as you know it, it is hard not to speak wisely! If things get heated, stay grounded in wise speech; be clear that how you speak your own responsibility, no matter what the other person does. If you stray from the guidelines, acknowledge that to yourself, and perhaps to the other person.

With time and a little practice, you will find yourself “speaking wisely” without consciously thinking about it. You might be amazed at the powerful, assertive ways you can communicate within the frame of the six guidelines; consider the well-known examples of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And – for a little bonus here – how about practicing wise speech in the way you talk to yourself?!

Know Someone Who Could Use More Wise Speech?

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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