One of the amazing aspects of business and work is the way in which we all bring our communication styles, which often include our childhood habits, patterns, strengths, and weaknesses, into the workplace.
Businesses may spend a good deal of time creating systems in an attempt to root out or change these individual behaviors, but at the end of the day, we are all human beings with established ways of communicating and responding. It’s easy to underestimate the power that our words have. Thus the importance of the practice of right speech.
The classic definition of right speech is to speak truthfully. To be loyal to the truth when speaking with others, not creating harm or speaking cruelly, not exaggerating or embellishing, and speaking in a way that relieves suffering and brings people back to themselves. Let’s unpack these approaches below.
Being Loyal to the Truth
Saying what you know to be true, and not saying what is not true, is a clear and powerful practice – and much more difficult than you might imagine.
When we speak truthfully we become worthy of trust, and the people around us feel cared for and safe.
When I was CEO of Brush Dance, a publishing company I started many years ago, most of our customers bought directly from us and had thirty days to pay for their purchase. If they were late paying us, we called them. I thought of this as an opportunity for truth-telling.
Our policy regarding collections calls was merely to state the truth – reminding customers of what they purchased, when they purchased it, the amount they owed, and when the payment was due. We then asked them when they expected to make a payment. In return for stating the truth, we asked for the truth in return.
Of course, we also made our business purchases on credit. It can be more difficult being on the other end of these calls, but the practice is the same.
If we were late in making payments, we tried to call our vendors before we were called by them. We let them know we were aware of the payment due and relayed our plan for making the payment, especially if we were going to be late.
Sometimes just telling the truth can be very refreshing, even though it can also be painful.
Not Creating Harm
Our words have the power to cause tremendous harm or tremendous healing.
I’ve seen much pain caused in the work environment by people not being careful with speech and underestimating the power of words.
Even when we have no intention to cause harm, our words may affect others in ways that are completely outside our own experiences or expectations. I have noticed, as a manager and especially as “the boss,” that my words, particularly how I express my displeasure, can have a tremendous impact. I have learned the importance of giving great care to where, when, and how I express my insights regarding performance or behaviors that need to be changed or improved.
So often in business, people describe situations and outcomes in ways that make themselves or their projects appear more successful or more certain than they really are.
I have also noticed that people sometimes make tasks appear more difficult and complicated than they actually are as a way to protect themselves from criticism or from being given additional work.
The word spin, meaning to put a positive or negative light on a situation, has recently been in vogue.
Spin is simply a euphemism for exaggeration.
Some years ago I noticed that in my communication with the Brush Dance Board of Directors I was presenting information in a very positive way and underestimating what was not working well. When I realized this, my first reaction was to overcompensate.
So, for a while, I shifted to underemphasizing our successes and bringing more attention to the difficulties. Eventually, I learned to present the most accurate picture that I could of our successes, our failures, what I was feeling good about, and my concerns.
Our speech has the potential to provide comfort, positive challenge, and transformation in our work environment.
By speaking clearly and directly from our hearts, we can touch the people around us and turn suffering into acceptance and joy. Just listening fully to others is often enough to relieve suffering. This requires stopping and just being with another person, in whatever state they are in.
I’ve discovered that aspects of my management style and speech were habits I had learned as a child. When I was very young I sensed the tension and stress in my household.
My father was manic-depressive and in and out of mental institutions. There was very little talk in my household about feelings, difficulties, or needs. I developed a strategy of dealing with difficult situations by ignoring them or distancing myself from them. Things seemed difficult enough, in fact, teetering on disaster.
I concluded that if I were to express what I saw or needed, it might push the situation over the edge or make it worse. I learned not to say anything and just take care of myself and of my parents the best I could.
Though this strategy may have worked for me as a child, it could have proved disastrous for me as the CEO of a small, quickly growing company.
Not saying anything was seen by some as approval of their behavior and work performance and by others as an expression of disapproval. Of course, usually it was the employees who were not performing well who thought my silence meant that I approved of their work, and the employees who were excelling who felt unacknowledged by my silence.
The foundation of right speech is deep listening.
Our speech does not occur in a vacuum and it includes our awareness of others. When people don’t feel heard they become isolated and unhappy. Their work suffers, and the work of everyone around them suffers as well. Right speech means being present and meeting each person and each situation directly. Since each person has different communication and listening styles, right speech is the practice of speaking to each person in a way that best reaches and affects that person in each situation, while at the same time being true to yourself.
Our speech does not occur in a vacuum and it includes our awareness of others.
When people don’t feel heard they become isolated and unhappy. Their work suffers, and the work of everyone around them suffers as well. Right speech means being present and meeting each person and each situation directly. S
ince each person has different communication and listening styles, right speech is the practice of speaking to each person in a way that best reaches and affects that person in each situation, while at the same time being true to yourself.
Sometimes we can use speech to hide our feelings and intentions. We often do this by asking questions instead of just saying what we want, see, or feel. Other times we block out others’ viewpoints by not asking questions and by forcefully entering others’ space. Practicing right speech entails including many views and expressing information and feeling in a way that is clear, direct, and effective.
Explore noticing how you speak to others and how others speak to you. Just notice.
Notice how your speech varies with whomever you are speaking – someone whom you report to, who reports to you, a family member.
Experiment by speaking directly and openly.
Take risks with your words by speaking openly from your heart.
Notice how your words touch and affect people.