Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
As a child you probably heard that chant, were maybe even given that advice by well-meaning adults. By now, you know the deception of that statement.
Words are powerful. So powerful, in fact, that they are even said to be mightier than the sword.
And like sticks and stones, words can be used as tools for building or as weapons for destroying. The problem is we don’t give words the same level of respect we give sticks and stones. For most of us, if we pick up a stick or a stone, we put some thought into how we’re going to use it and the anticipated result. Too often we throw words around with little concern for the impact.
I heard recently of someone who periodically challenges himself to go a full week without speaking about anyone who isn’t in the room, unless it is required of him in his position at work or as a parent. How long could you go? I’m not sure I would make it an entire day. Certainly it would require paying close attention—being ever mindful of what I’m about to say.
To speak or not to speak?
When deciding whether to say something to or about someone, here are some guidelines for your consideration (inspired by the Buddhist criteria for right speech):
- In the case of words that are known to be untrue, don’t say them.
- In the case of words known to be true, but unbeneficial and disagreeable to others, don’t say them.
- In the case of words that are known to be true and beneficial, but disagreeable to others, have a sense of the proper time and manner for saying them.
- In the case of words that are known to be true and agreeable to others, but unbeneficial or harmful, don’t say them.
- In the case of words that are known to be true, beneficial, and agreeable to others, have a sense of the proper time and manner for saying them.
What is your intention?
When you do speak, what is the nature of your speech? Are the words thoughtful? What about the tone of voice? Is your intention positive or negative, harmful or helpful? Of course, there are times when you must say things that are difficult or unpleasant. In those situations, it helps to be in touch with your intention. What are you hoping to accomplish with the conversation? Is your intention one of good will?
Whether in the office, at home, or in your social life, practicing mindful speech can vastly improve your relationships and help you accomplish your goals.
Are you up for a challenge?
If you are ready for a mindful speech exercise, perhaps you’ll join me in one of these challenges:
- Go one full day without speaking about anyone who isn’t present except as necessary to perform your job or other responsibilities. If you slip up, make note of it and continue with the challenge.
- Slow down your speech. It’s hard to be mindful of what you are saying or how you are saying it when the words are pouring out of you at top speed. During your next conversation, pause for a couple of seconds before you speak. Then consciously speak slower, and tune in to the other person’s reaction.
- Will you join me in one of the exercises above?
- What word or phrase do you think is overused right now?
- What’s one piece of advice your parents gave you that sticks with you today?
- Share anything you’d like on any topic you’d like.