Everyone can speak, but not everyone can speak graciously and exercise Right Speech. The tone of our voice and the content of what we say are equally important. People can clearly sense our emotions, intentions, attitude and tone when we are talking with them, and this is usually where misunderstandings occur. These same factors also affect the impression we give to others.
“Be gentle and amiable towards others” is one of Tzu Chi’s Ten Precepts set by Dharma Master Cheng Yen. This shows the importance of speech in the development of our character. However, people often lack gentleness when they speak, or they may speak inappropriately and at the wrong time. This creates the negative karma of speech, which not only leads to conflicts and disputes, but also misunderstanding and enmity, resulting in negative karmic affinities.
It takes practice to exercise Right Speech as it involves not only our thinking process but also our emotional response. It is absolutely impossible to speak graciously and exercise Right Speech when we are in anger, because we are already hijacked by our emotions at that moment. People can sense our thoughts and emotions when we speak. Hence, we should always be mindful of our thoughts and manage our emotions well.
According to research by psychologists, only 10% of communication is verbal while the remaining 90% is expressed through non-verbal elements, such as body language, tone of voice, and emotions. Therefore, we should not have the idea that people will not know what we think and feel if we do not tell them our thoughts and feelings. Even a slow and dull person can sense our intentions and emotions when we are talking, as it is very difficult for us to completely conceal our feelings.
One day, a volunteer came to me and asked in frustration: "I explained the reasons very well during the meeting and did not say anything wrong. But why couldn’t everyone just accept what I said? There were even some who expressed their disagreement!"
This particular volunteer was a very outspoken person who was not shy to express his opinions, especially on people’s shortcomings and issues. Although what he had said might be true and logical, his tone of voice was stern and strict. So, even though his opinions were neutral and objective, he sounded subjective and rigid.
Due to his careless talk and inappropriate speech, many people found it hard to share his sentiments although they agreed with what he said. Before our conversation came to an end, I said to him: “Although what you said was very reasonable, the tone of your voice was rude. So, no matter how reasonable your words were and how sound your logic was, they would not enter people’s hearts." Upon hearing that, he was suddenly enlightened.
When we are making comments about others’ weaknesses and mistakes, it would be very difficult for them to accept what we say, unless we share a deep, loving bond with them or they are highly cultivated individuals. The majority of the people still prefer to hear positive words of praise or encouragement. Just as trees and flowers grow towards sunlight, people are motivated by words of praise and encouragement. When we praise others, we bring joy to ourselves, too. However, when we receive praises from others, we should be vigilant and not become prideful.
The sutra says, “The Buddha expounds the Dharma with one voice, but living beings understand the same teaching differently, depending on their varied capacities.” When we are making comments about others, we must see whether they are able to happily embrace our opinions. This also depends on whether we are convincing and friendly enough; otherwise, our intention to enlighten someone may end up negatively impacting that person. Our words have an impact on others, hence we have to be very careful with our speech.
Sometimes, we need to be understanding and forgiving towards others instead of criticising or correcting them, especially when we lack adequate virtue or do not have a close relationship with them. Forgiving others is a virtue. If we are the ones who are in the wrong, we would want others to forgive us as well. However, if you keep forgiving yourself and lack self-awareness and self-reflection, you will continue to slack and make mistakes. On the contrary, it is not good to keep blaming yourself all the time as you may end up developing an inferiority complex and a low self-esteem.
With regards to the content of speech, the Buddha said, "If you know that something is harmful and untrue, then don't say it. If it is beneficial to others but not true, don't say it. If it is harmful but true, don't say it, too. Even if it is something beneficial and true, you must still say it to the right person at the right time.” Therefore, although what you wish to say is something very sensible, it must still be said at the right time in the right situation, then it will be considered “wondrous Dharma”. Otherwise, even if you are expounding a great teaching, all your efforts will be futile.
Over complimenting others amounts to flattery as it is not entirely true, and flattery is one form of negative speech karma. But sometimes, we may speak carelessly of others and end up being oblivious to our own mistakes as we only talk about others’ flaws. And if we are too quick and direct with our words, we may sound harsh and hurtful, which puts others off.
A wise person will always think before he speaks and will not rush to be the first to speak. Some people like to say whatever that crosses their mind. This shows their desire to be acknowledged and valued. If a person does not seek to earn respect from others by genuinely contributing his efforts, and merely seeks others’ attention by voicing out his views, he will appear self-centred and sink into an egotistic attitude.
It is better to speak less words than more, and better still to speak positively. But it is more important to be able to speak tactfully than to just speak positively. Speaking is an art which requires wits and tact. Be mindful when you speak, and be careful with your words. In fact sometimes, it is even better to remain silent, as the saying goes, “Silence is golden”. Being silent is also a mark of elegance and dignity.
From a Buddhist point of view, all true principles cannot be explained or expressed in words and are conveyed without speaking. Truths are unspoken words, and leading by example does not require words. Indeed, there is so much we can learn from the art of speaking alone.