The legacy of the Buddha’s awakening most frequently honored is his liberating insight and the potent meditative practices that lead to it. Another incredible gift and essential support of the teachings are his guidelines on how to live wisely and ethically. And one of the most central and important of these areas is “Right Speech.”
When one considers how much time and energy we spend each day communicating (speaking, listening, email, text, social media), one gets a sense of the importance of bringing mindfulness to this realm, as well as the far-reaching and transformative effects this can have on our lives. And yet, we find relatively few explicit instructions in the early texts for how to implement the Buddha’s guidelines on Right Speech.
Early in my practice, I came across Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and developed a deep interest in the relationship between contemplative practice and communication. In his system of training I found a detailed, hands-on guide that directly translated my values for insight and compassion from the meditation cushion into my life.
Over time, implementing his training, I experienced more clarity, empathy, and connection in my relationships. In my meditation practice, I witnessed a fascinating, synergistic process occurring between Vipassana and NVC. I watched with amazement as the very mechanisms of perception were slowly reshaped in my mind – and through this, how insight into the nature of perception itself developed.
Developing Skillful Communication
Skillful communication is a high-order skill using ordinary capacities. It can be likened to the difference between knowing how to tie one’s shoelaces and knowing how to play the piano. Both require fine motor coordination and manual dexterity, yet playing the piano adds listening and refines these capacities to a much higher level. So how can we learn to actually do this?
In contemplating speech, we recognize that communication by definition entails navigating the interplay between two (or more) complex, living systems. Consider for a moment the multi-dimensionality of just one human being: the range of thoughts, emotions, sensations; personal and cultural history; emotional and psychological conditioning; views, beliefs, aspirations, intentions. Take two of these packages, put them together, and sparks start to fly!
The good news is that we live in a unique time in history, with access to a range of highly developed technologies: inner technologies of meditation; systems of psychological and emotional healing; brain science and practical knowledge of the human nervous system; and increasingly refined methods of skillful communication. Putting these components together, we are well poised to transform our ways of relating to one another, life, and the communication that mediates them.
What Mindfulness brings to Communication
Most communication systems focus on the external dimension, which includes a receptive element of listening and an expressive element of speaking. Yet with mindfulness practice comes the recognition of the interior dimension to human experience. In communication, we begin to see the importance of a third, often unseen, primary component: awareness.
We then understand communication as an external interface of our interior experiences. Even when it is ostensibly only about “objective” externals (say, engineering a bridge) our interiors are often (if not always) involved to a certain degree. Why? Because we are complex, sensitive creatures that feel things in relation to one another and our surroundings.
Communication practice is also holistic. While it’s founded on the interior dimension, it involves integrating these inner and outer realms of experience. When functioning harmoniously, it involves all aspects: what we say; when, why, and how we say it; as well as how and why we listen. Practicing Mindful Communication can involve in depth training, but is founded upon a few core principles and practices. Here are three of the most important components:
I. Effective communication requires presence.
First comes presence. To have clarity in our dialogues and relationships, we actually need to be here! If we’re not present, chances are that we won’t have much access to the tools we’ve learned or our good intentions.
Practice: Lead with presence
Start from and return to a ground of embodied presence in all interactions. Put down other thoughts and projects and give your full attention to whomever you are speaking with. To do this, try to keep some awareness in your body (e.g, sensations in your hands or feet). Trust this presence as an essential source of stability, empathy, and information.
II. Intention determines direction
Next is intention. This is about where we’re coming from, why we speak and listen. It is the motivation for our communication, the vector that drives it. Many interactions are directed by our impulses to get what we want, make a point, be heard or seen in a certain way. Yet the foundation for productive dialogue and skillful negotiation is the quality of connection and understanding we create.
Practice: Cultivate an intention to understand
Intention– and specifically the intention to understand – is perhaps the single most powerful and transformative ingredient in relationship and communication. Let go a little of the outcome; see what happens when you take a sincere interest in understanding another’s experience. Cultivate and return to this simple yet powerful intention to understand.
III. Attention shapes experience.
Where we place our attention shapes what we experience. Focusing on another’s faults, we fail to see them as a whole person, and vice versa. In speaking, we tend to focus primarily on the story, the content of a situation, or on the judgments we perceive. Learning how to skillfully attend to the essential aspects of a message can transform a dialogue. The first component of such training is being able to identify what matters, what is at stake.
Practice: Get down to what matters
Listen for what matters – in yourself, in another. Ask inwardly, “What matters most about this?” This kind of inquiry helps us get beyond surface positions to the underlying values and needs in a situation, thereby creating more room for understanding, collaboration, and creative problem-solving.
The Power of Patience
Integrating these principles and reaping their benefits takes time, dedication, and persistence. Used consistently and patiently, they can create profound changes in one’s life, relationships, and inner experience. I hope that they will serve you personally and professionally to transform your thinking, listening, and speaking to more fully align with your values!