Did you know that people speak on average anywhere from 6000 to 16000 words a day? But more importantly, are we doing good with our words? Or are we wasting our words? Or worse, are we creating conflict and suffering with our words?
Ancient philosophers all emphasized the importance of cultivating our speech. For example, Socrates taught the Triple Filter Test: before saying something, make sure it is true, good, and useful.
Cato the Younger was a great orator whose public speeches were capable of moving the masses. He said,
“I begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.”
The Importance of Our Speech
You might be thinking, “That sounds like a lot of unnecessary hassle…Do I really need to be so careful with my speech?” I would ask, “Do you want a happy life and happy relationships?”
Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin said,
“Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that a key — maybe the key — to a happy life is strong relationships.”
The longest scientific study done on happiness is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Robert Waldinger is the fourth director of this study, and he reported,
“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period…The people who were most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
According to the Gottman Institute, happy marriages have at least a 5:1 positive to negative interaction ratio, meaning that for every negative interaction in the relationship, there are at least 5 positive ones. Excellent marriages have a 20:1 ratio. If the relationship approaches a 1:1 ratio, then that marriage is headed for disaster. We can infer similar situations for other relationships too, such as relationships with family, at work, and with friends.
Think about it: How much of our relationship conflict is related to our speech? A criticism here, a sarcastic remark there, another complaint here. Before you know it, conflict is born. Conflict at home leads to a lot of unhappiness. Conflict at work hinders our professional success. Therefore, cultivating our speech is absolutely essential for happy relationships and a happy life.
Broadly speaking, we want to avoid “bad” speech and only speak what is helpful, useful, and timely. But what are some specific examples that we commonly encounter in our daily lives? Venerable Jing Kong gave five concrete examples:
- Speak less words of complaint and more words of tolerance. Complaining brings resentment. Tolerance is wisdom.
- Speak less words of sarcasm and more words of respect. Sarcasm leads to contempt. Respect brings understanding.
- Speak less words of hurt and more words of care. Hurtful words create opposition. Caring words bring friendship.
- Speak less words of command and more words of discussion. Speaking words of command is tyranny. Speaking words of discussion is true leadership.
- Speak less words of criticism and more words of encouragement. Criticism creates distance. Encouragement brings out potential.
These five have some overlap, but they also have their unique aspects. Let’s look at each in more detail.
1: Speak less words of complaint and more words of tolerance
What’s uncool to do, a burden to hear, and common everywhere? No one likes a complainer, so let’s not be one ourselves. Complaining creates negative emotions within ourselves and causes others to resent us. That’s quite a bad deal, right? Besides, guess who suffers most from always complaining? Hint: it’s not them.
A wise person knows that complaining doesn’t help anybody, and it hurts us the most. Rather than complaining, wise people focus on solving the problem. Wise people also prioritize harmony over matters.
For example, rather than saying
- “Why are you always so busy? Can’t you prioritize me for once?”
- “Why are my employees so lazy? They just do the bare minimum.”
Instead we can say
- “Hi honey, I know you’ve been extremely busy recently, and I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate how hard you work for the family. It’s not easy being in your shoes, and I admire your diligence. I do have a request though. Do you think you could free up an evening with me next week to go out and have some fun? That would really make my week. But I know you are very busy, so if you can’t, it’s okay too.”
- “Thank you to all the employees for your dedication and support every day. It has come to my attention that some employees are lacking motivation at work. As your leader, I want to give you a positive and supportive working environment. Please communicate with me more about how we can achieve this.”
From these examples, we can see that effective speech shows tolerance, understanding, and respect towards others. It also proposes a solution and makes an offer for further communication.
2: Speak less words of sarcasm and more words of respect
Oftentimes, people use sarcasm because they think it is funny, or to avoid directly communicating about a problem. After saying sarcastic words, the other person will feel offended and say, “How can you say that?” The speaker then says, “I’m just kidding! Don’t take things so seriously!”
In other words, sarcastic people deceive themselves and others. They think they are “just kidding”, but deep down, there is truth to what they are saying, otherwise they wouldn’t even think of saying it. They tell the other person they are kidding, but the other person is doubtful. If we can’t openly and respectfully communicate about a problem, the relationship is headed for disaster, and both parties will have a lot of suffering ahead.
Just to be clear, some sarcasm can be humorous. For example, if a person says, “I’m a MasterChef. My specialty is burning toast.” That’s fine. That doesn’t offend anyone and is kind of funny. Here, we are referring to sarcastic speech that offends others.
For example, we should not say things like
- My partner doesn’t have any good points. Just kidding!”
- “I just love it when my partner ignores me, which only happens every day. Just kidding!”
- “I think my partner loves his/her phone more than me. Just kidding!”
- “I think my partner has Alzheimer’s. He always forgets about me. Just kidding!”
If we continually make sarcastic remarks about someone, that person will eventually feel contempt and hate us. One simple solution is simply to not say sarcastic speech. If we want to communicate about a problem, we should use a respectful and caring intention.
For example, we can say,
“You know I care about you, and that means I want you to be your best self. I really hope you can be more conscientious about XYZ. I know it’s not easy, and I probably don’t understand everything about your situation and how you feel, but I’m willing to chat openly about it. I also know that I’m not perfect either, so I’m willing to improve myself for you too.”
Problems are unavoidable in relationships. Good relationships aren’t those that don’t have any problems, they are those that can openly communicate about problems and solve them in a harmonious way. That requires us to avoid hurtful speech like sarcasm and to speak with a loving and respectful heart.
3: Speak less words of hurt and more words of care
Complaints and sarcasm both hurt others. In this context, I think “hurtful speech” is more harmful than complaints and sarcasm, and it often arises out of anger or hate. For example:
- “You’re hopeless!”
- “Why can’t you be as smart as your brother?”
- “That’s a stupid idea. Why would you even think of something like that?”
Hurtful speech causes emotional wounds. Physical wounds heal in time. Emotional wounds might cause suffering and resentment for a lifetime. On the other hand, caring words spoken in someone’s time of need can make them feel like their world still has hope and give them motivation to keep going. Given how big the impact is, we really need to develop endurance against anger and cultivate caring speech.
People who speak hurtful speech and get angry easily are highly insensitive to others’ feelings. The solution then, is to be more caring and sensitive towards others. Instead of blaming them, try to understand why they are like that. After all, no one tries to be stupid. No one tries to be bad. We all do things because we think it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps we were wrong, but that doesn’t mean we like being wrong or stupid. Or perhaps it is a bad habit, but that doesn’t mean we want to be a slave to bad habits.
How would you want others to treat you when you make a mistake or act according to bad habits? Most people would want others to show understanding and care rather than harshly blaming or criticizing.
We can say things like,
- “It’s okay, we’re all human. We’ve all made that mistake before. I believe you will be better in the future.”
- “If I were in your shoes, I’d probably be the same as you, if not worse. It’s not easy for you, but I believe in you.”
- “This is a serious problem, and I’m concerned for your wellbeing. How can I help?”
When we speak words of care and understanding, we will strengthen our relationship even, and especially, in the face of challenges.
4: Speak less words of command and more words of discussion
This one focuses on people in positions of power, such as parents and bosses. It also applies to people of equal power, such as spouses, coworkers, and friends. It’s easy to become arrogant when we have power. After all, those below us usually have no choice but to follow our commands. But if we become tyrants who always command others and never listen to other people’s opinions, then other people will accumulate resentment and eventually rebel against us.
Words of command leave no room for discussion. For example:
- “I need you to complete this task by tomorrow evening.”
- “This weekend we are going to clean the house at noon, and you need to be here. No excuses!”
- “I bought this new shirt for you. Don’t wear that old shirt anymore. It’s ugly. From now on, wear this new one.”
Words of discussion would sound like this:
- “Are you busy recently? I have a really important task that needs to be done as soon as possible. Would you be able to do it by tomorrow evening? You can put other tasks on hold to work on this one first.”
- “I think our house really needs some cleaning. What do you think? Would you be free this Sunday at noon to clean with me?”
- “I know you really like that shirt, but I just don’t like it very much. Would it be possible for you to wear a different shirt? I’ll even pay for you to buy a new one, and you can pick!”
Effective leaders are caring and humble. They would understand their followers’ needs and difficulties, and they would consult their followers for their input. In this way, their followers will be loyal and supportive.
To elaborate further within the context of family relationships, I heard an interesting phrase called “loving you without your permission.” It refers to when people use the disguise of love to try to control others. For example, “I bought this for you. It’s very healthy. Eat it.” But what if the other person doesn’t like it? What if the other person doesn’t want it? Did you ask them if they want it? If they already said they don’t want it, we shouldn’t force them to do something they don’t want to do.
Now you might object and say, “But they clearly need it. I really am doing it for their own good. If they don’t change, they will have negative consequences.” That’s a fair point. But if our goal is truly to help them, then we would help them change in a way that they can accept. For example, if someone smokes ten cigarettes a day, it’s very very hard for them to stop completely the next day. If we force them to make such a big change so fast, then we lack empathy and kindness. True kindness is patient and encouraging. We would help them think of ways to change, and we would support them patiently.
5: Speak less words of criticism and more words of encouragement
To me, criticism sounds very similar to complaints and hurtful speech. To differentiate them, I think complaints are lighter than criticisms. Criticisms and hurtful speech both hurt others, but in this context, I think hurtful speech carries the intention to make others feel bad, while criticisms might not. When we criticize others, we often do so because we are annoyed at their behavior, but we might not actually be trying to hurt them. Even though we don’t have that intention, the result of criticism is still hurting others, so we need to be careful to avoid it.
One of the most common workplace complaints is “You can do a hundred things right and no one notices. You do one thing wrong and they’re all over you.”
I’m pretty sure leaders aren’t trying to make their workers feel demotivated, but that’s exactly what happens when there’s a lack of encouragement and too much criticism. We especially need to say more words of appreciation and encouragement to those working in thankless jobs, such as janitors, receptionists, nurses, and customer service workers.
William Cowper said,
“I believe no man was ever scolded out of his sins.”
Again, when we criticize others about their bad behavior, we probably want them to change. But we might not realize that criticizing them isn’t helpful. In fact, it only makes them feel worse and creates opposition. As a result, they refuse to listen to us, which is counterproductive towards our hopes.
That’s really unfortunate. Everyone is trying their best to live their life, to do what they think is right, and everyone needs affirmation and moral support. Let’s try to make the word kinder and better by noticing other people’s efforts and encouraging them more. Rather than criticizing others for their problems, we should show understanding, provide a solution, and affirm them that they can be better. In this way, we can truly help them bring out their potential.
For example, rather than saying
- “How could you forget to bring the keys? You are always so careless.”
- “Your report has many errors. This is unacceptable.”
We can say
- “You’ve been really busy and tired recently, so maybe that’s why you forgot the keys. I’m sure you’ll be more careful next time. Maybe you can keep a set of spare keys in the car to prevent this problem in the future.”
- “This report was a big task, and I know you worked very hard on it in the short time given. Thank you for your hard work. You are still accumulating experience, and I’m sure you will do better in the future. Next time, please communicate with me more during the writing process so that we can catch errors earlier and prevent a last-minute scramble.”
When we speak words of encouragement and understanding, and when we provide a solution rather than just criticizing, we show that we are on their side, that we want the best for them, and that we believe in them. In this way, they will trust us and have motivation to improve.
The one that resonates with me the most is “speak less words of complaint”. I have a bad habit of complaining, and I’ve been working on it a lot over the past couple of years. In fact, I did a 21-Day No Complaint Challenge, and have continued to be vigilant since. I’m much better now, but I still have room for improvement.
I don’t really speak sarcasm. When others speak sarcastically to me, I usually take it seriously and don’t realize it’s sarcasm until they tell me.
As a teacher, I try to speak more words of discussion and less words of command with my students. For example, students need to submit assignments by a certain date. But I tell them that if they have extenuating circumstances, they can communicate with me and we might be able to make an exception. I also like to give students options to choose from, such as whether they want to do a test or a presentation, or whether they want a study class or an extra lesson. This way, they feel heard and respected.
Like anybody, I’ve been on the receiving end of criticisms and hurtful speech. I told myself, “I need to not be like this towards others.” Hence, when I give criticism, I’m careful to first say something positive first, then provide a solution and request them to change in a respectful way. This is much easier when done in writing. If I have to respond on-the-spot orally, sometimes I still end up criticizing without respect and without providing a solution. That’s something I need to keep working on.
Everyone wants to have happy relationships and a happy life. Unfortunately, most of us weren’t taught the importance of speech and how to speak effectively in a way that promotes harmony. Thus, we need to take it upon ourselves to learn and practice now. This article looked at five concrete examples:
- Speak less words of complaint and more words of tolerance.
- Speak less words of sarcasm and more words of respect.
- Speak less words of hurt and more words of care.
- Speak less words of command and more words of discussion.
- Speak less words of criticism and more words of encouragement.
Which one resonates with you the most? How can you work on it?