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  • Thomas Bien

Skillful Speech

Skillful Speech

We all know that speech should be truthful. This is a high standard. If you try for just one day to say nothing untrue and not exaggerated or distorted to make us look good, I think you will find this difficult.

But speech must also be skillful. Speech that makes another feel bad about themselves or in the wrong generally will lead only to defensiveness or counterattack.

Take the following, admittedly stereotypical example:

Wife: Why won’t you take the garbage out? How many times do I have to tell you? You know I hate it when you leave the garbage for me to take out. Don’t you care about me? You never take the garbage out.

What the husband says next is unlikely to be constructive. While the wife thinks she is trying to get him to change his behavior, she has really just given him a handful of reasons not to take the garbage out. To change, the second person must accept being told he is uncaring. If he changes his behavior, he will feel he is giving in. He might defend himself (I just took it out yesterday!) or counterattack on some other topic (Yeh, but how many times have I had to tell you not to move my stuff, because I still don’t find my things where I leave them!) Neither approach will help solve the problem at hand. Contrast the following:

Wife: Hon, I’d love it if you would remember to take the garbage out for me. It may be silly to see this as the man’s job, but I really appreciate when you do that.

In this example, the wife has asked for what she wants instead of complaining about what she’s not getting. She has given the husband reasons to feel good about changing, instead of feeling bad for not having changed. He gets to feel magnanimous for meeting the request.

To communicate with another, our speech must be skillful. It should avoid causing negative feelings that will only create defensiveness or counterattack.

That is to say, I’d appreciate it so much if you helped me change by being encouraging, rather than making me feel bad about myself.

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