A lesson from the buddha: skillful speech 1

Speak only the speech
that neither torments self
nor does harm to others.
That speech is truly well spoken.

Speak only endearing speech,
speech that is welcomed.
Speech when it brings no evil
to others is pleasant.
— Sn 3.3

What we say matters. The buddhists recognize this, and the concept of expressing yourself in words has been deemed so fundamental that it is one of the eight practices towards the cessation of suffering, awakening and enlightenment. These eight practices put together, is known as the noble eightfold path.

Now, “skillful speech” is also commonly referred to as “right speech” or “wise speech”. I have always preferred the translation “skillful”, as I believe this better conveys that this is indeed a skill, and skills can be obtained by diligent practice. This puts the power of change firmly in your own hands. I like that idea.

So then, what is this “skillful speech” according to the buddhist framework, and why should you care?

You should care because why you communicate, how you communicate, what you communicate and when you choose to communicate are all aspects of your work life that can make a huge difference for you, in your workplace and with your team.

Just think back at any given situation when you needed stuff to happen, or think back at a situation when stuff didn’t happen the way you wanted. I’ll venture a guess here and say that communication played a central part in both those scenarios.

Skillful speech is at the core really simple: if what you are about to say is not true, beneficial or timely, don’t say it. But then again, whatever does that mean? Well, it means that we have the opportunity to examine the various aspects of our communication and check it against easy-to-remember-rules:

  • Do I speak at the right time, or not?
  • Do I speak of facts, or not?
  • Do I speak gently or harshly?
  • Do I speak profitable words or not?
  • Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?

It would be easy to interpret this as perfectly useless in conflict, and conflict and friction is a natural aspect of work. But you see, here’s where it gets interesting.

From the Abhaya Sutta:

“In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them”.

Which basically means that if what you’re about to say is factual, true and beneficial, yet might not be what the other person wants to hear, the sutras tell us to choose our time for this. Something to consider with regards to expressing opinions, constructive feedback and criticism.

From my own experience practicing this, I can tell you that it’s very, very hard. I’m not a big talker to begin with, I’m a bit of a listener, so at one point I ended up saying absolutely nothing for quite some time. Thankfully, I snapped out if it. But it’s OK that it’s hard. It’s OK to fail.

The key, I’ve found, to actually improve in the practice of skillful speech in the buddhist framework, is to explore the tight connection to the practice of skillful awareness (you might know this as mindfulness). This makes sense, as you will have a pretty hard time mastering your speech without being mindful of what’s going on inside yourself and with the people around you.

I believe that practicing skillful speech, in combination with studies of the NVC-framework, is something that can have a true positive impact in your life, and in your work.


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