By Kellie Schorr
“I want you to listen to everything I’m going to say very carefully. Your test results are back and they indicate that you are HIV positive.”
What’s the most unpleasant thing you’ve had to tell someone? For me, that sentence was the hardest to say, and when I worked as an HIV prevention and care specialist, I said it many times. I’ve given this statement to young men at the start of their adult life, female sex workers with small children who depended on them, injection drug users in their mid-thirties, and a woman nearing 60 who had unprotected sex with a nice man she met at church. As medical intervention and reduced social stigma emerged, the weight of that sentence shifted, but it never got easier.
In every life there comes a time when something hard, something unpleasant, has to be said out loud. Sometimes it is a truth another person needs to know; other times it’s something you simply need to express for your own sake or sense of justice. Coming out, getting clean, revealing betrayal, or clearing the air—everyone has a mountain of words to climb at some point.
The Noble Eightfold Path—the list of “rights things” that is the ladder of our liberation—includes three good realizations to help us sit with loved ones, strangers, or enemies and say the words so hard to get out.
Unpleasant Speech Isn’t Wrong Speech.
“It is going to take some time for you to process the diagnosis and understand what it means for your life. However, denial is something you cannot afford. HIV is a reality that requires medical intervention and personal change.”
At a time when we are so easily misled by peer pressure and toxic positivity, there is some confusion about the Eightfold Path’s direction of “Right Speech.” Some folks falsely equate right speech with happy speech, and thus wrong speech is anything unpleasant that bubbles out between halting words. Nothing could be farther from accurate.
Right speech is real speech. It’s honest clarity combined with a sense of compassion and interconnection. Right speech doesn’t have to be pretty, positive, or followed up with a spoon full of sugar. You don’t have to know where it will lead. It doesn’t have to contain a solution. It simply has to be motivated by kindness and steeped in truth.
It’s skillful to say:
“I know you’re taking drugs again. We need to talk about getting help. We can’t keep pretending this isn’t happening.”
“I’m in a dark place right now and my depression is keeping me from seeing the good side of life.”
“When I was 12 my uncle molested me in his workshop. I have challenges with intimacy and a hard time with trust.”
Wrong speech is a lie, name-calling, manipulating, or bullying motivated by greed, aggression, or prejudice. It’s not hard to tell if something is wrong speech. If you’re creating instead of sharing, pushing instead of giving, or you simply don’t care if your words hurt someone else—it’s wrong speech.
Saying unpleasant things is part of being connected to others. Not the best part, not (hopefully) a constant part, but it is essential. Motivated by an open heart, an unpleasant conversation can be a great gift.
Unpleasant Speech Isn’t a Weapon.
“You need to understand that by communicating you are HIV Positive I am not saying ‘you are going to die.’ I’m saying ‘this is the day you discovered how to have a longer life.’”
The key behind an awkward or painful conversation is to know your motivation for having this talk in the first place. Saying something hard shouldn’t be done in order to harm another person, even if that person has harmed you. Truth should never be used as a battering ram. It’s much better as a bridge. It is, in its best form, an act of generosity.
“Right Effort” describes the work we do to keep unwholesome things, like greed or aggression, from arising, and act with generosity and kindness in place of unskillful behavior. Nowhere is this more important than when we sit down to say that things that must be said.
The Eightfold path asks us to explore our hearts before we set out on the road ahead. Make sure your motivation for what you’re about to say isn’t to punish, cause pain or shut someone down. Use expression as a way of healing (yourself or someone else) and to offer someone a chance to wake up.
Unpleasant Speech Isn’t the Last Word.
“The moment you find out you are HIV positive is a moment you’ll always remember, but it in your shock, it is easy to forget exactly what I’m telling you. The single most important thing for you to remember is this: Today is not an end. It is a beginning.”
Too often we think of having an unpleasant conversation as a way to “be done with it.” It never seems to work out like that. Even if what you’re saying is “goodbye”—there will be something that happens next, for you and for them.
Don’t drop a truth bomb and walk out the door or purposefully create a situation where your comment is the “last word.” Even if it represents the last discussion you intend to have on the topic, create space for you and the listener to have somewhere to go with it. Through a realistic viewpoint, closure is another kind of open door.
Discussing “Right View,” Thich Nhat Hahn wrote:
“It is the insight we have into the reality of life, a living insight that fills us with understanding, peace, and love.”
~ The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
A conversation that comes with a set of expectations is one likely to be filled with suffering. People rarely respond the way we imagine in our heads. The confrontation we thought would bring a needed apology instead seeds a fight we didn’t expect. The disclosure of a past pain gets dismissed or ignored. Nothing ever goes as planned.
Right View compels us to see that reality and instead of slapping our truth on the table like a winning hand of cards, we can be peaceful in the midst of disappointing reactions and unexpected responses. Give yourself time to process whatever happens, and realize the other person will need some too. That doesn’t suggest you have to do it with them. They are responsible for their own realizations. Right View means you see the conversation for what it really is—a next step for each of you.
Not one of the times I told someone they were HIV positive was it a discussion I wanted to have. It was a discussion I needed to have so that person could get into the medical care system and give themselves the best chance at a longer life. Communication—especially the difficult kind—matters. Whether it’s a past event, a present anger, or a future concern, saying something unpleasant is essential to the practice of being human.
Be honest, be kind, be open. The path lies before you.
Editor: Dana Gornall