A client who had been struggling to repair her self-esteem came to me after attending a local lay-led support group reeling from what felt like a personal attack by another member who felt it was their prerogative to ‘call her out’ on a problematic behavior which s/he perceived she ‘needed to see.’ The damage from this verbal assault added significantly to the problems she was already having. This should not happen in a group. Although we all aspire to overcome our own unskillful behaviors, it is not usually skillful or kind to point out the unskillful behaviors of others, certainly not in a group. These superficially well-meaning ‘corrections’ are more likely to come from our own ego’s desire to protect and promote itself than a place of loving kindness.
There are a variety of reasons for a verbal communication; to give instruction, to persuade, to be entertained or to be inspired. When we can openly share a personal experience with someone, we are also developing trusting interpersonal relationships that form the basis of community. Over the course of evolution, it became advantageous for humans to join forces in families, communities and tribes. Individuals who felt good about being in community were more reproductively successful. Thus, in order to create community, we became capable of restraining our aggressive and willful impulses. Practicing this restraint in wise speech is essential for successful community building.
The Buddhist tradition has fairly well developed guidelines for how to speak wisely and various versions of the guidelines occur throughout the Pali Canon. Here are two of them from the Access to Insight web page.
"And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech."
— SN 45.8
Five keys to right speech
"Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?
"It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will."
— AN 5.198
The characteristics of right speech can be stated positively and more succinctly as: True, Useful, and Kind. What is true is fairly self-explanatory. Speech which is untimely, idle or gossip is not useful and speech that is harsh or divisive is not kind. Wise speech meets all three of the characteristics.