Language is the bridge between our intentions and our worlds. Our relationship to language determines how we wield words to bridge our worlds.

We cultivate a generative relationship with words by embracing Wholeness, Truthfulness, and Freedom. A poor acronym (WTF), we develop these qualities with intentional speaking, yet our habitual patterns conceal them.

Five Impediments

Intentional speaking begins with recognizing and dissolving five common impediments or habitual patterns. Recognizing any of these impediments and enacting practices can be like treating poison with an antidote.

  1. Reactive speech
  2. Gossip
  3. Useless speech: idle speaking/story
  4. Harmful speech
  5. False speech

With practice, we dissolve these five impediments and restore WTF to enable intentional speaking.

1. Reactive speech

Reactive speech involves speaking that exists beyond our awareness: erratic or impulsive communication from confusing thoughts, ungrounded emotions, or distorted perceptions that cause us to react or even overreact.

This speech is so ingrained in us that we often confuse it for who we are. Examples of reactive speech include saying yes to promises or agreements that we do not fulfill, making insincere requests, reacting to statements, and going along with something.

The reflexive nature of this speech supports gossip (#2 below), false speech (#3), or harmful speech (#4).

The practice of dissolving reactive speech involves becoming grounded. Begin with pausing by stopping, connecting to your breath, and feeling the ground beneath your feet before speaking. Then, connect with your words and the matter at hand.

2. Gossip

We gossip when we express concerns to someone other than the person who can actually do – or support doing – something about those concerns.

Gossiping can give us an emotional charge or immediate satisfaction. This cultivates a way of being or attitude that invites more gossip. We become that person interested in gossip and soon become surrounded by it.

Gossip has several harmful effects: it hurts others, drains us, and wastes our energy and time without producing results or genuine satisfaction.

Speaking about an absent person can be compassionate when it supports them, works out an issue, or brings people together.

The antidote to gossip is direct a request to someone who can do something about the issue at hand. If that’s not possible, invite a trusted listener to offer feedback on your perspective. Be truthful about your issue and willing to hear the truth.

3. Useless speech

Useless speech includes idle chatter or “story.”

Idle chatter fills a space or silence with platitudes, small talk, justification, rationalization, or chit-chat.

The Pali word for useless or pointless speech is Sampappalapa: the act of talking just to talk. We insert ourselves into a conversation with something unrelated or unnecessary, often to draw attention or assert our presence.

More complex is the idea of “story.” Here, we fill a space with explanations or rationalizations to avoid uncomfortable facts, conceal challenging evidence, or prevent action.

A person who evades accountability may resort to “story” to conceal their impact. “Story” leads to gaslighting.

The practice of becoming grounded in intentions, needs, or motivations helps us recognize how we fill space with useless speech. Shift your focus to what’s happening right now. Get “out here” (out of your head) to where the action is. Remember, your words reveal your credibility.

4. Harmful speech

Whether intentional or not, the impact of harmful speech devastates others and remains with us for some time.

Society today seems to thrive on harmful speech. Social media incentivizes it to optimize clicks and profit. The latest offense provokes outrage, sometimes in bad faith, to drive more outrage. We can hurl insults on multiple platforms.

In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh warns against speaking cruelly:

We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred. Even those who have a good heart and don’t want to hurt others sometimes allow toxic words to escape from their lips. … When we say something poisonous, it is usually because of our habit energies. Our words are very powerful. They can give someone a complex, take away their purpose in life, or even drive them to suicide. We must not forget this.

The antidote to harmful speech involves bringing compassion to speaking. With compassion, we tune into the truth of suffering (both our own and that of others) to relieve it. Limit your consumption of toxic thoughts or emotions via any medium or conversation. When feeling the impulse to speak or act out of anger, pause and continue the conversation later when you can speak with more clarity and respect.

Also, discern between being right and being effective. Being effective often requires skillfully sharing your concerns privately rather than in a group.

5. False speech

False speech can take the form of outright lying, misrepresenting another’s views, mischaracterizing a person or situation, exaggerating one’s efforts, etc.

We honor truthfulness. We avoid dishonesty, which includes being dishonest with ourselves. We seek out the most accurate version of the truth of any situation. When something is green, we say it is green and not purple.

We avoid exaggerating or embellishing. We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that they are furious. We endeavor to describe situations completely and accurately, even if they do not favor us.

We avoid speaking with a forked tongue. We don’t say one thing to one person and something else to another. We may frame the truth differently to help different listeners understand our meaning, but we must be clear about and loyal to the truth.

The antidote to false speech begins with honoring our word as whole and complete – as our integrity. We practice becoming aware of inaccuracies, unresolved items, and broken agreements, and are willing to clean up any impact to restore our word.

Think Before You Speak

Without intentional speaking, we diminish our words and our ability to create. Wholeness, truthfulness, and freedom give us trust, credibility, and space for co-creation. Recognizing the five impediments above dissolves old habitual patterns.

Intentional speech is based on intentional thinking. Our speaking expresses our thoughts aloud. Our conversations reveal our inner compass; what we focus on, avoid, deny, or share aloud discloses our minds and thoughts.

Eastern thought views thinking or analysis as loosening up – questioning for openness and spaciousness. This is different from our Western notion of analysis, which requires more content and knowledge. Veering East to loosen up, question, and release beliefs and assumptions creates the space for wisdom and insight to emerge.

To support this inquiry, create a grounding practice by setting intention, cultivating motivation, and discerning what is actually happening.

Listening Creates Speaking

That listening creates speaking is an insightful inquiry to live into. Deep listening is a compassionate practice that delves to discover and dissolve our habitual patterns, creating space for ourselves and others in a conversation. At Bhavana Learning Group our work is extensive in developing listening.

As a practice, listening involves cultivating interest. We look deeply with self-compassion to see our views and the internal knots that give rise to our thinking. Silence supports looking deeply, and pausing supports silence.

Pausing between events and before speaking slows our rate of interpretation and reflexive listening. It includes 1) stopping habitual energies, 2) calming our breath, and 3) resting into the moment. After taking a deep belly breath, we open up to the matter at hand.

If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice intentional speaking.

A Generative Practice

Why develop intentional speaking?

Simple: our word gives us access to possibility. It describes our experiences. Explains our reality. Creates our world.

Ask these four time-honored questions whenever you feel compelled to speak:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it useful?
  3. Is it the right time?
  4. Can I deliver my words skillfully with compassion?

Honoring our relationship to language as whole, truthful, and with freedom cultivates trust, credibility, and space. When we accept responsibility for intentional speaking, we develop the generativity that is our potential and become co-creators.

With practice, intentional speaking cuts through distractions and penetrates distortions, bringing wisdom, compassion, and clarity to co-create our world.

Reading Time: 6 min. Digest Time: 8 min.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.