According to communication experts, we spend approximately 80% of waking hours communicating with others. Yet how necessary is all this communication? This post will attempt to sort out the positives of communication from those that hinder serenity.
Communication is necessary. Virginia Satir said, “Communication is to a relationship what breathing is to maintaining life.” We want people to “get” us. Communication allows us to share our thoughts with others, to bring and hear a different point of view, and to communicate our feelings. It allows us to connect so that we can overcome our sense of aloneness in the world.
We often communicate whether we intend to or not. Non-verbal signs such as body language communicate much about us without conscious effort. For this post, however, the focus will only be on verbal communication.
Communication is essential to relationships. Inability to communicate is often cited as a reason for entering couple’s therapy. Poor communication in relationships can have detrimental results. Effective communication brings individuals closer. By communicating one’s thoughts and feelings, intimacy grows, and relationships prosper.
Communication is necessary beyond close interpersonal relationships as well. It is how people learn. If learning were as simple as reading a book, there would be no need for formal education once reading was mastered. But it is through communication that teaching and learning become more effective.
Communication is also necessary to function in society. It is how days are structured. It is through communicating one’s needs, even as mundane as how to get to a particular place, that people are able to function in society.
But what needs, exactly, are people attempting to get met most of the time? Much speech may be geared toward an unhealthy need. In Buddhism, there is an eight-fold path to enlightenment. Right speech consists of avoiding four types of speech (lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter). The belief is that much speech is focused on reinforcing the ego, thus inhibiting enlightenment. For many quieting this ego reinforcement is a daunting task.
It is unnecessary to spend time explaining avoiding lying; after all, it is self-explanatory. Divisive speech, when understood, is also easy to grasp. Divisive speech creates opposition between two people. People who do this are instigators, and although there may be some humorous payoff for getting two individuals to argue, it is easy is to see how in a spiritual sense this would be viewed as negative. Abusive speech is also simple to understand. Name-calling is an obvious example. I am often discouraged when I hear how couples speak to one another when angry. The couple may report that they do not take it seriously once the argument is over, but it is difficult to believe it isn’t having detrimental effects.
Engaging in abusive speech certainly isn’t the same as expressing negative thoughts about another’s behavior. Confronting another’s behavior can be done in an appropriate and thoughtful, perhaps even compassionate, manner. Addressing being hurt by another needs to be devoid of put-downs. When cultivating a positive relationship, it is appropriate, and often even essential, to let someone know his or her behavior hurt or bothered you without being abusive in your discourse.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of right speech to master is avoiding idle chatter. When experts discuss the path to enlightenment they purport overcoming one’s ego; ego in this sense is one’s need to reaffirm his or her existence or importance. Take a moment and think of all the talk you engage in on a daily basis. How much of it is necessary for bringing you closer to another? How much is necessary for functioning, such as communicating needs at work, setting appointments, or navigating through the day? Or, how much is simply reinforcing your ego, which is hampering you from attaining serenity and peace of mind?
The goal of talk that judges others is to reinforce the ego, the sense of being better than another. Gossip is another example of idle chatter which reeks of judgment. Whenever one discusses their opinion, what they would do or would have done, or some of the activities of his day without it being necessary or to bring them closer to another, is ego reinforcement. This ego reinforcement is often unconscious, and it seems necessary in the moment. However, it is an obstacle to serenity.
There is an acronym used to question whether speech is Right Speech, THINK: T-is it True; H-is it Helpful; I-is it Inspiring; N-is it necessary, K-is it Kind. One would certainly make noticeable improvement toward Right Speech if these questions were considered before speaking. As I purport in most of my posts, change begins with mindfulness. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu said regarding the advice of his teacher, “If you can't control your mouth, there's no way you can hope to control your mind”.
Right Speech is undoubtedly a difficult task. Although some may find it easy to avoid lying, divisive, or abusive language, ceasing idle chatter may be much more difficult. We communicate for many positive ends. However, much speech is simply unnecessary, and geared at reinforcing a sense of significance. If it is necessary to feel more significant, there must be a more fulfilling way than to engage in idle chatter.
Copyright William Berry, 2012
Beebe, S., Beebe, S., Redmond, M.; 2011; Interpersonal Communication: Relating to Others, Pearson Education.
Bhikkhu, T; Noble Strategies, retrieved online at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/noblestrategy.pdf