08. Right Speech: To speak with insight and sensitivity

What would you do?

David Abitbol, a Jerusalem-based Web developer logged onto Twitter in 2009 to find an anti-semitic tweet from Megan Phelps-Roper, a member of a small fringe church that uses hate speech to evangelicise. Abitbol could have understandably responded with hate or derision. Instead, he spent the next three years engaging Phelps-Roper in polite, even friendly, debate about her belief that tragedies – war, natural disaster, mass shootings – were reasons to celebrate.

Using right speech, in Abitbol’s case, meant challenging her views while not resorting to hateful speech himself. Later, in an interview with the New Yorker, he said he had learned that relating to hateful people on a human level – and humanising the object of their hate, in this case Jews – was the best way to deal with them.

In 2010 the two met in person at a festival organised by Abitbol, facing each other from different sides of an anti-semitic picket held by Phelps-Roper’s church outside the event. Phelps-Roper later described the experience of talking with Abitbol that day as: “Funny, friendly, but definitely on opposite sides and each sticking to our guns.”

What happened next surprised everyone, including Phelps-Roper. Despite having been raised from birth with the hateful indoctrination of her church, Abitbol’s gentle questioning struck a nerve. In 2012, she and her younger sister walked away from their families and friends of the church – the only life they had ever known. Roper spoke later in an interview, again for the New Yorker, and recalled the compassion and right speech she encountered from Abitbol and others made her question things: what if she was spending her one life hurting people, picking fights with the entire world, for nothing? “It was, like, just the fact that I thought about it, I had to leave right then,” she said.

And in an astonishing turnaround, Phelps-Roper began speaking about compassion and tolerance at Jewish gatherings organised by Abitbol himself across North America.

The benefits of Right Speech

Right Speech has the potential to:

  • save us from getting into arguments and situations that we will later regret

  • enable us to develop warm, sensitive and harmonious friendships and relationships

  • develop the skill of knowing how, what and when to share our thoughts and feelings

A 16 Guidelines view on right speech

Words! Love them or hate them, it often feels like we’re drowning in the noise they create – not only in our own ears, or on the page, but in our heads. They have the power to uplift us and to cast us down, to liberate and to entrap. They create friendships and make enemies. They can gain us great wealth and lose us everything we possess. The power of speech is so great that words cannot do it justice.

As soon as a child learns to speak, its life and relationships change. Countless daily choices come next. Whether to speak loudly or quietly, fast or slow. What words to use. When to speak or to be silent. We learn how to use our speech through trial and error, and in doing so create an image and style that will define our personality and shape our lives.

Right speech is a commitment to use words skillfully, in a way that will bring peace and happiness to ourselves and the people around us. It is about using our speech to take away fear, to bring hope, to make people laugh and feel closer to one another. This is how we share who we are.

Did you know?

Research at the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that gossip makes up 15 percent of office e-mail, and is 2.7 times more likely to be negative.  Another research from the University of Groningen concluded that gossip triggers self- conscious emotions. 

A short reflection on right speech from '16 Guidelines: The Basics' book

Find a quiet space where you can relax. Sit comfortably. To help you settle, focus your awareness on your breathing. Let go of any thoughts, images of feelings that arise. Whenever you become distracted, bring your awareness gently back to the sensation of the breath going in and out. Spend a few minutes enjoying the experience of coming to rest. 

What does 'right speech' mean to you? Think of a time when you watched someone speak with kindness, sensitivity and wisdom. How did it feel? What did it sound like? What effect did it have on the people around them? 

Reflect on some of the conversations that you have had today -- their content, their tone and their purpose. Would you describe them as right speech? 

Bring to mind a recent occasion when you gossiped about someone else, or criticised them behind their back. This may be difficult or uncomfortable. Try to recall this conversation without judging yourself or the listener. 

Be gentle but probing. What were you doing at the time? What motivated you to speak in this way? How did it make you feel? What effect did it have on other people? 

Next visualise that you walk into a room where two people are talking about you. They don't see you, but you overhear them gossiping and criticising. Imagine that this is really happening and watch how you react. What happens to your body? What happens in your mind? How do feel towards them? What will you do next? 

If this imaginary gossip and criticism has hurt you, then treat yourself with great kindness and gentleness. Acknowledge that you are experiencing pain without seeking to blame the people concerned. 

Try to extend the same kindness and gentleness to the person who you have hurt with your own criticism and gossip. Is there a way for you to make amends? What is holding you back from doing this? What would it take to use your speech more wisely in future? 

Close with the wish "May all beings be happy!" 

Quotes on Right Speech

  • When you feel dog tired at night, it may be because you've growled all day long. – Source Unknown

  • We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak. - Epictetus

  • Not the fastest horse can catch a word spoken in anger. - Chinese Proverb

  • The quieter you become, the more you can hear - Ram Dass

  • You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say. —Martin Luther

  • An apology is a good way to have the last word.  – Source Unknown

  • Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than silence. – Arabic Proverb

  • A wise old owl sat on an oak; the more he saw the less he spoke; the less he spoke the more he heard; why aren't we like that wise old bird? – Source Unknown

  • Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment. – Winston Churchill

  • You have it easily in your power to increase the sum total of this world’s happiness right now. How? By giving a few words of sincere appreciation to someone who is lonely or discouraged. Perhaps you will forget tomorrow the kind words you may say today. But the recipient may cherish them over a lifetime. - Dale Carnegie

  • Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself, is it true? At the second gate, ask is it necessary?At the third gate, ask is it kind? - Rumi

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