Words have power! They can inspire us and lift us up. They can shame us and bring us down. Yet even though most of us acknowledge the influence of words, we don’t realize how our simple every-day speech can affect the connection to ourself and others. When we speak mindfully with the intention to relate, we tap into our natural, compassionate state of being, helping us become a more loving parent, friend, partner, and human-being.
Why I Started To Speak More Lovingly
For the longest time, my negative way of speaking was influenced by my family and social circles. I was sarcastic, cynical, and would say things I didn’t really mean to be funny and interesting.
I started to become more mindful of speaking in a positive manner in massage school. We learned how to speak to clients in a way that made them feel supported. We also learned how to speak about ourselves in a more loving way. Our instructor warned us seriously, “Be careful, your body believes everything you say!”
It was the first time I considered the impact my own words had on self-esteem and physical manifestation of our thoughts. Never again did I complain about a “bad” back or other body part that was simply sending pain signals to the brain in it’s own language. I embraced the idea that I should be talking to and about my body in a positive manner so that it could heal.
Still, I had much more room to go in speaking gently. Several years later at the end of a Yoga class, one of my students came up to me and we were talking about Chinese Medicine school (which I was in the middle of). I must have been talking about a test and I said something like, “I’m not going to kill myself over it”. The student’s expression turned to one of horror and she said, “nothing is worth killing yourself over”. Of course I was kidding, but she reflected back to me that it wasn’t funny. To some people this could be very disturbing. And it made a very deep impression on me because I realized that I was supposed to be modeling love & peace for my students and I wasn’t quite there.
Framework for Speaking Positively: Right Speech and Non-violent Communication
When I made the intention to speak more mindfully, I turned my attention to my meditation practice. I also immersed myself in the Buddhism classes at Insight Meditation Center.
Later on when I became a parent, I learned more about Non-Violent Communication which is very similar (but without the religious connotation, so might be more comfortable with some people although I feel that Buddhism is a philosophy for living peacefully, not a religion!) The Attachment Parenting play group we occasionally attended used NVC as a means to connect deeply with the kids and build relationships among the parents. Since I had the background in Right Speech, NVC was not much of a stretch. I’ve done my best to adhere to it’s guidelines ever since.
I was lucky to already be familiar with these concepts, but they are certainly not mainstream. Here’s more information about each so you can decide if either is intriguing and how to apply some of the simple principles.
Right Speech is one of the moral disciplines of the Eight-fold Path in Buddhism and includes these 4 aspects:
No false speech (lies)
Do not slander or discredit others
Abstain from abusive language
No idle talk or gossiping
It supports the saying we’ve all heard:
“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”
When one practices Right Speech, we speak honestly and are more authentic in our communication. We mindfully promote harmony and use language to lesson anger and tension in our social groups.
Practicing Right Speech is not easy, especially in this age of social media and with an inflamed political atmosphere.
In Right Speech From the Buddhist Eightfold Path, the author writes:
“Sometimes people justify harsh speech because they are speaking on behalf of a worthy cause. Ultimately, stirring up acrimony is planting karmic seeds that will hurt the cause we think we’re fighting for.
When you live in a world of acrimonious speech, practice of Right Speech requires Right Effort (another tenet on The Path) and sometimes even courage. But it is an essential part of the Buddhist path.”
Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
The Center for Nonviolent Communication is a good place to begin your education on this practice. They have many helpful articles, resources, and even have a training program for those who feel called to share this training with others. NVC was created by Marshall B. Rosenberg in response to the increasing violence he’s observed in our culture. Basically, practicing NVC consists of these four components (these are taken directly from the website):
Observation: Observation without evaluation consists of noticing concrete things and actions around us. We learn to distinguish between judgment and what we sense in the present moment, and to simply observe what is there.
Feeling: When we notice things around us, we inevitably experience varying emotions and physical sensations in each particular moment. Here, distinguishing feelings from thoughts is an essential step to the NVC process.
Needs: All individuals have needs and values that sustain and enrich their lives. When those needs are met, we experience comfortable feelings, like happiness or peacefulness, and when they are not, we experience uncomfortable feelings, like frustration. Understanding that we, as well as those around us, have these needs is perhaps the most important step in learning to practice NVC and to live empathically.
Request: To make clear and present requests is crucial to NVC’s transformative mission. When we learn to request concrete actions that can be carried out in the present moment, we begin to find ways to cooperatively and creatively ensure that everyone’s needs are met.
If you’re wanting to speak more mindfully, it needs to be a conscious shift you make in the heart first, then the mind. Know that it will take some time and don’t feel too bad if you regress back to old patterns of communication. You’re doing your best and that’s what matters most. I still yell at my son everyday, but it’s the practice of Right Speech and NVC that I’m engaging with 95% of the time that makes it much easier for us to forgive each other and reconnect. I hope it does the same for you and all of your relationships.
Have you practiced mindful speech? How has it worked for you? I’d love to know in the comments!