The precepts on upright speech give us a wide range of opportunities to improve how we relate to each other verbally. In a nutshell, the instructions are to guide our speech by truthfulness, harmonious intent, gentleness, and non-blathering. But for me, probably the most important practice regarding speech is…silence.
There have only been a few moments I can point to in my own practice when I could see that something had changed. When I started not-saying what was on my mind, at least not right away, everything shifted.
There are a couple of parts to this. In a conversation with two or more people, sometimes if we wait, whatever we had on our mind is said by someone else. It’s best if people figure things out for themselves instead of being told by someone else, and a lot of us only figure out what we think by listening to ourselves talk. So lesson number one (for me) is WAIT.
This willingness to pause has other benefits. It has been my experience that if I listen with full attention to someone, they listen to themselves better and consequently speak in a more authentic way. Sometimes what we had been planning to say would have interrupted the flow the conversation, possibly pointing it back towards ourselves and our experiences or opinions.
Another good thing that can happen if we practice silence is that we are able to take in more information and form a broader picture of whatever subject is at hand. Many people need pauses built into their thoughtful speech. They deserve that space, and it is kind for us to give it to them. If someone is saying something we disagree with, we can wait until they finish, because they may end up surprising us. We can ask questions rather than arguing. If our goal is to understand rather than persuade, everyone benefits.
And, keeping silence conserves our energy.
Of course, there are people who have difficulty speaking up. They may be keeping too much silence already, especially if they are not-speaking because of fear or a lack of self-confidence. We can notice if this is the case and invite the quiet ones to share their thoughts, then wait for a complete response.
Listening is an important form of giving, and it is a powerful tool for loosening the grip of our self-importance.