by Ronald Alexander

right-speechRecently there has been a great deal of media focus on Mel Gibson’s abusive outbursts against his girlfriend. As a psychotherapist working with couples and families I know that there are always two sides in any relationship although no one has the right to verbally or physically attack another individual. Even though directing angry and hurtful words at another is not necessarily life threatening the emotional wounds they create can be just as deep as physical abuse.

From both a Buddhist (non violent) and a healthy psychological view, if you have an unwholesome intention and are consciously choosing to manipulate or hurt others, you’re limiting your own capacity for change and stunting the creative unfolding of your own life. Your energy is being wasted on the futile effort of trying to force the external world to conform to your vision. The mental and emotional effort required to maintain these actions is enormous. Having wise intention is more than merely ethical; it’s necessary for psychological well-being and clear thinking and is something I discuss in greater depths in my book, Wise Mind, Open Mind.

The greater our facility with language, the more tempting it can be to try to control situations through our words. Insults and sarcasm can dominate and intimidate others, and someone who’s very verbally gifted may use these techniques to manipulate others in a subtle or not-so-subtle way. Gossip unfairly gives us power over others. Left-handed compliments designed to make someone doubt himself and feel weak, or carefully constructed insults designed to humiliate another person while preventing him from recognizing that he’s being ridiculed publicly, are common weapons in the arsenal of one who doesn’t exercise wise speech.

Wise speech requires mindful attention to the power of your words and the messages underneath them. Recognize that your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language matter, and drop any defensiveness that arises in you when someone points out the discrepancy between the literal meaning of your words and the message you’re sending with your eyes, crossed arms, or disrespectful tone.

Direct, honest communication even if it’s uncomfortable is vital if you want to have more productive and respectful conversations. Often, I’ve counseled executives who had no idea just how intimidating or disrespectful they were when speaking to employees. When in a panic, they tended to respond with aggressive speech meant to frighten others into changing their behavior in order to placate upper management. This approach shuts down productive communication, reducing the manager’s ability to see the larger picture, make better decisions, and effectively influence his or her team. Good leaders carefully hone what they say, mindfully expressing themselves.


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