By John Lee Pendall
THNK is an easy way to remember what skillful speech is. Is it true? is it helpful? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
If something doesn’t meet one of the first three, then it’s probably unskillful speech. If it meets the first three but not the last one, then it could be skillful if it’s the appropriate time to say it. Skillful speech is difficult when we’re distracted, tired, inebriated, or emotional, so those are exactly the times we need it the most.
Is it true? Lying, or saying things that we’re not sure of, is a great way to create disharmony, confuse people and lose their respect. It also take a lot of energy to keep the lie going—energy we could use on more worthwhile things. Our opinions aren’t necessarily true.
I’ll say that again: our opinions aren’t necessarily true.
When we’re sharing an opinion or belief, it’s helpful to throw in phrases like, “I think,” “I believe,” or, “In my experience.”
Is it helpful? I think we’ve all wanted to share deep truths about ourselves and our pasts, or we’ve wanted to be totally honest with someone we care about. That isn’t always wise. I shared some unhelpful advice with a friend this morning. What I was saying was true, but it wasn’t helpful. Like a typical man, I approached her problem as something to solve rather than something to listen to. She just needed to vent, she didn’t need my advice.
Also, if you’re always honest about the things you’re thinking and feeling, then a lot of people probably think you’re an asshole. There’s no wisdom or skill to blurting out whatever crosses our minds. It shows a lack of character and restraint. I don’t usually “share my truth” unless someone asks for it, and they usually don’t haha.
Is it necessary? If something’s untrue or unhelpful, then it’s probably unnecessary as well. Why waste a perfectly good silence or an opportunity to listen?
Is it kind? The Suttas—this one is closer to, “Is it pleasing to hear?” Not everything that’s true, helpful and necessary is pleasant. There are hard truths out there, and we might find ourselves situations where we need to hear them. In those moments, we’re asked to reflect on if this is the right moment for that. Saying, “We’re all going to die someday,” over a loudspeaker at a kid’s baptism probably isn’t the right time for that sort of thing, even though coming to terms with that truth is helpful and necessary in general.
Explaining skillful speech is pretty easy, but it’s really, really hard to practice. Especially since there’s unskillful speech all over the place. Each time we hear it, it’s like we’re being tempted to participate because participation feels good. But getting involved in that aspect of society usually muddies our minds and sets off chains of cause and effect that keep us from the cushion.
These chains always eventually lead to something harmful or hurtful—for us or someone else. So, by practicing skillful speech, we’re doing our own little part to save the world.
For me, skillful speech involves not getting involved in blazing debates. There’s nothing helpful that my opinion can bring to the table in those situations.
Sometimes, all I can do (or the best thing to do) is be the annoying guy that brings up skillful speech.
Editor: Dana Gornall