For many years Decurion has offered its members a course called The Practice of Self-Management. Over ten weeks, we explore readings and practices aimed at helping people develop three skill sets: the ability to be more present, the ability to dissolve apparent barriers between ourselves and others, and the ability to make what is subject into object in order to reduce reactivity and to engender appropriate responses. We think these skills enhance both personal development and business effectiveness.
During the course’s penultimate week, we address skillful speech. We begin with some observations about listening. Krishnamurti notes “if we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate we hardly listen at all to what is being said” (from J. Krishnamurti, Talks and Dialogues). Having spent many weeks working on being more present and on observing our constant internal dialogue, we attempt to create space for true listening.
The phrase “skillful speech” comes from the Buddhist tradition and is generally thought to have five qualities: it is timely, truthful, kind, gentle, and beneficial. For ease of discussion, we use the acronym TTKGB. And many class participants put this acronym on a yellow sticky, which they review before a phone call or during a meeting.
Recently, I received from Ken McLeod a newsletter with thoughts on practicing what he calls “real speech,” speech that is “accurate, relevant, draws the listener in, and is constructive.” He recommends five methods.
- Take a breath before saying anything. Always.
I like that “always.” It says to me, “I’m not kidding.” Taking a breath allows the other person to finish expressing his or her thought. Assuming we’re not using the breath simply to formulate our response, it can help us create the space necessary for true listening.
- When you speak, listen to your own voice as if you were listening to another person.
This ties to the skill of making what is subject into object, gaining some distance from our normal reactive patterns. If we can listen to what we say and to the tone we use, we’ll have a better idea of how we come across to others and the opportunity to make adjustments so that we speak with greater integrity and authenticity.
- Ask open questions.
One of Decurion’s Practices of Community is to balance advocacy and inquiry. Too often, we fall into the trap of making a point through asking a question. Or we attempt to guide a discussion by asking a question the answer to which we know already. Or we can ask a yes/no question that does little more than shut down conversation.
In A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes about honest, open questions. An honest question is one you ask without thinking you know the right answer. And an open question is one that expands the conversation rather than restricting or directing it. Asking honest and open questions, a way of “hearing one another into speech,” supports one of the key practices in Parker’s Circle of Trust retreats: no fixing, advising, saving, or correcting one another.
- When you apologize, apologize for your actions, not for results.
Few things distress me more than hearing someone in customer service tell me he is sorry if I did not enjoy my experience. Ultimately, I am responsible for my experience. He is responsible for what he did or failed to do, and that is what his apology should address. As you can imagine, we receive our fair share of customer complaints. Whenever I am involved in the response, I try to make sure we address our errors or omissions, not the customer’s experience of them.
- Be impeccable with your word.
Clearly, our relationships with others rest on whether we mean what we say and say what we mean. And McLeod suggests this method applies not only to our interactions with others but to the voice in our heads: “too often, we do not use a real voice, but the voice of one or other of our parents or others who have criticized or built us up to make use of us for their own needs.” Listening to the internal voice requires, again, the distance we create between subject and object through our course in The Practice of Self-Management.