Wise Speech

Guidelines for Wise Speech

​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.

         The definition

"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.