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Learning to Speak with Love: A Step-by-Step Guide

Dharma For Today     |    April 4, 2018 by Tzu Chi USA


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Sticks and stones, move over: whether they come from a stern parent, an overbearing colleague, or a critical partner, words can hurt.  We may replay the moment they were said, how they were said, and how they made us feel. They may be the kind that stay with us for the rest of the day, or worse: the kind that haunt us for the rest of our lives.  Luckily, Buddhism offers a solution for this through what is known as “loving speech,” one of the Four All-Embracing Virtues within Buddhist doctrine.

Through the practice of loving speech, we may put psychologically healthier thoughts into action in our interactions with others. Loving speech may best be described as kind speech; one that acknowledges the feelings of another, imbuing respect for another's being and, ultimately, fostering happier and more rewarding relationships. How can our words- or better yet, thoughts- help us walk a higher path and make us the bigger person?

Let’s be honest, though: enacting any kind of personal change is a struggle.  Many of us may even be convinced it’s too late to change. A father may have conducted himself with his children in certain ways since childhood; a boss may have a hardened reputation; or long-term partners and spouses may feel too worn down to approach things differently. Yet, if the relationship is important to you- and change is what you want- change is what you’ll need to do. Follow this step-by-step exercise to help you reflect and overcome your next verbal clash.

First, Revisit Your Trauma Chest

While it’s impossible to turn back time and undo or redo a particular verbal exchange, we can use past encounters to at least learn some important lessons.  Think of a time you experienced the polar opposite of loving speech: harsh, hurtful words. Let’s set context aside for the moment; what was said to you? What did you say in return? Grab a piece of paper and write it it down.

Now, the first phrase- what was said to you- may appear completely harmless out of context.  But, an “it’s okay” or even an “I’ll wash the dishes” could be verbal stones to us given the situation and tone with which they were delivered.  American author and poet Maya Angelou once so eloquently wrote, “words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”  Rather, this much is true: it may not be as much about what we say, but how we say it.

Next, Get Mindful

Having had some distance from the situation, observe how it makes you feel now.  What images spring to mind? Do you notice a change in your body, particularly in your face or chest? According to the American Psychological Association, if you’re experiencing tightness in your muscles, an uptick in your heart rate and breathing, it’s all a biological reaction to stress.  Even recalling a stressful situation is enough to cause us the same physiological distress we experienced at that time. But, alas, there are a few pathways to overcome it.

Then, Put Yourself in Another’s Shoes

It’s time to re-read what was said to you.  This may take some effort, but practice saying it aloud, as though your intention was to hurt or belittle.  Notice the quality of the energy that’s required to do so. You may feel such negative feelings as being flustered, angered, or even deeply stressed. No matter what it is, this much is true: they are all forms of pain.

This is perhaps our most powerful revelation: that when another hurts us with their words, they are already in pain themselves.  This is a powerful- yet challenging- moment of opportunity. We now have the choice, as the receiver of such an anguished message, to respond in kind or with kindness to another person’s pain.

Finally, Realize You Are in Control

Re-read the response you wrote.  What words could you have said to comfort them? Take note of the power you now hold in this imagined situation.  Read your new response aloud with the objective to soothe. Imagine this: how could the outcome of the same situation have possibly changed had you responded with this love? If you answered positively to this question, you have learned an important lesson:

Once we can acknowledge our power, and not powerlessness, over the situation,

we can actively choose to heal another, absolve ourselves of their misdirected pain,

or, better yet, move the relationship forward.

Kindness is Never Wasted

Simple yet reflective exercises like the one above have the potential to remind us that our happiness and emotions are in our own hands, and are not at the mercy of others.  We may apply the power of “loving speech” even in the smallest of interactions so we may train ourselves for the more emotional taxing ones. If you hope to reap the rewards of more fruitful relationships, try it for yourself.  After all, there is no gift more valuable than kindness, especially when we all need it most.


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