Words and thoughts

From Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication:
Semanticist Wendell Johnson pointed out that we create many problems for ourselves by using static language to express or capture a reality that is ever-changing: “Our language is an imperfect instrument created by ancient and ignorant men. It is an animistic language that invites us to talk about stability and constants, about similarities and normal and kinds, about magical transformations, quick cures, simple problems, and final solutions. Yet the world we try to symbolise with this language is a world of process, change, differences, dimensions, functions, relationships, growths, interactions, developing, learning, coping, complexity. And the mismatch of our ever-changing world and our relatively static language forms is part of our problem.”

This quote draws the important connection between how we think, confined by the language in which we think, and our words. It also points out that the world as experienced is non-static, an ever-changing flow of sensory and mental stimuli, of complex causes and results. We struggle with a language unsuited to describing our experience. The quote also points out that in order to change our speech, we need to change our thinking.

As a result of my starting to read Nonviolent Communication, an interesting moment occurred recently. The scene was a familiar one: I was the passenger, my husband was driving; we were in a line of cars approaching a ferry. The person managing the several lines of cars made a low signal with his hand, to which I didn’t see my husband respond. I said, “Did you see that signal?”, to which he replied, “Of course, I saw it! Don’t tell me how to drive!” I went silent and had a think. After a couple of minutes I said, “When I say something about your driving, I’m not insulting your manhood, I’m expressing my fear.” Then he had a think. A little later I asked if the same was true for him when he criticized my driving, and he allowed that in those situations he wasn’t saying “you’re incompetent”, but also expressing a fear.

Because of the principle (in NVC) of separating observations from feelings, I was able to identify my own fear/nervousness as the motivation behind my words. I was also able to perceive that my words were taken as a criticism and were not welcomed or received neutrally. This is a key – when people feel they are being criticized, they almost always react defensively. It’s our job to notice when we’ve unintentionally given a signal that was taken as criticism, and adjust our words to accurately reflect our own feelings. As we improve in this practice, we will (more and more often) be able to adjust our words before we speak.

This commitment to paying attention to accuracy with our words is a type of truthfulness, the central element of right speech in the Buddha’s 8-fold path. I’m feeling gratitude for this opportunity to deepen my practice of wholesome speech, and trust that it will also lead to more wholesome thought and action.

4 Comments

Filed under Speech, The 8-fold path

4 responses to “Words and thoughts

  1. Ouch! Excellent question. With maximum mindfulness, I will recognize my fear, question its rationality, and say nothing. With less than maximum mindfulness, I might grab the dashboard and grunt. With no mindfulness, I’ll probably say, “Did you see that signal?”
    Gotta keep our sense of humor as we learn…

    • Anonymous

      “Maximum mindfulness” might just be all that it will take to run into that cement truck because the driver didn’t see the signal 🙂

  2. Anonymous

    A very helpful post Lynn, it so hit home for me as I am sure it will for many. Now that you know that “Did you see that signal?” was taken as criticism, what will you say in a similar situation in the future?

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