How can we communicate more skillfully? In this podcast episode, I will discuss “right speech”, one of the points on the eightfold path. I will discuss three different communication styles: passive, aggressive, and assertive and share a communication formula that has helped me to communicate more skillfully with my loved ones.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 113. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about right speech or skillful communication.
As always, keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are.
Let’s start out by talking about the Zen Koan I left you in the last podcast episode. This is the koan that’s called The Short Staff. Shuzan held out his short staff and said, “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”
This is one of those short and simple koans that’s meant to make you really think, and he brings out what seems like two opposing arguments here. One is that if you do call it a short staff, you’re opposing the reality of what it is. So let’s start with that. What is this thing? And I think here he’s focusing on a couple of things. For me, this is how this makes sense.
Short is relative, right? It’s only a short staff when it’s compared to another staff, let’s say a longer staff. So if it’s stacked next to a longer staff, then sure it’s the short staff. But if you put it next to another staff that’s shorter than this one, this isn’t the short staff, this is the long staff. So we have the problem of comparison, right? What are we comparing it to to decide that it’s short or not?
But then the other argument that he brings up here is that if you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. And again, the fact is interdependent, right? It’s, well, if it’s next to a longer staff and we don’t call it a short staff, then we’re ignoring the fact that it is shorter than the one that it’s sitting next to.
So for me, this koan becomes really powerful when I try to think of it in terms of seeing through the lens of impermanence and through the lens of interdependence. We talk about this often in Buddhism, right? Seeing through a scene with eyes of wisdom.
When we do that, we start to change the way that we see things. We can look at a staff, at this short staff, and decide short in terms of what? I have to see the interdependent nature of this concept of a short staff in relation to something else. That’s what gives it the meaning of being short or long. But then we, it becomes more complex if I say, “Well, who decided this is a staff? Why is this a staff and not just a branch of the tree or a cane or the many other things that this thing can be? A piece of firewood, right?” It all depends on the context of what I’m using it for and how am I using it. So in that sense, I’m ignoring the reality of what it is, because I’ve conceptualized this part of a tree, and I’ve made it a concept that we created as humans. We decided it’s a staff, and what is a staff? Well, however I define that, now I’m bound by it, but we’re the ones who made up that definition. So that’s one important thing to recall.
Then the other one is if I use it as a staff, but I don’t call it a staff, I’m ignoring what it can be used for. So it’s kind of like one of those situations where by naming it, we give it usefulness; but by naming it, we also create problems.
So for me, this koan, like all koans, it’s not meant to be something that’s solved. It’s not meant to be, “Oh, okay, well let me figure this out. I’ll get the right answer.” It’s not that. It’s an invitation to explore the question. What is short? What is a staff? Why do I call it a short staff? In relationship to what? And then to see this in the lens of impermanence and interdependence, right? When did it cease being a branch from a tree and become a staff? When will it cease being a staff and become just a piece of firewood or a stick on the street or whatever it’s going to be?
To me, that’s where this becomes really powerful, through the lens of impermanence, and also through the lens of interdependence. This is only a staff because we decided that it’s a staff. If there were no humans on this earth, then what is a staff, right? There’s no such thing. Or to see the staff, you have to see the tree. To see the tree, you have to see the sun and the rain and the dirt and all the things that allow the tree to be a tree, and suddenly the staff isn’t so simple anymore. It’s not just a staff. It’s kind of everything. To me, that’s where these koans become powerful.
But to take it a step further and really, really get the most out of these koans, you want to turn all this and apply it inward, right? To the view that you have of self. If I can sit here and look at this staff through the lens of impermanence and interdependence and reach this moment of profound insight into the nature of the staff, imagine what would happen if I applied that same thing towards the lens that I have of the view of self. Who am I? Am I something separate from everything else? Am I the culmination of countless causes and conditions that led to this moment where here I am existing? And to me, that’s where this becomes really profound, right? Like I was saying with when did it cease being just a a tree branch that fell? Or just because it was whittled into a certain length or a certain shape, now we call it a staff. But when did that cease being part of the tree?
Imagine that when when you think about yourself. For me, this has been a fun exercise where I realized, “Well, here I am, existing. I’m just the culmination of a relationship that started with my parents, or beyond them. I’m the combination of several events that have taken place in the past between my grandparents, or my great-grandparents,” and on and on and on. I don’t just mean like conception. I mean the decision, my dad’s decision to get out of the car and say hi to this girl he saw at the airport. I’m the culmination of that one act. Or my great-grandparents who decided to immigrate to the U.S., or my other sets of great-grandparents who, on their honeymoon, left Spain and decided to visit Mexico and decided to stay there. I’m the culmination of that decision.
In that sense, the view that I have of myself as so much greater than just me here being how I am, doing what I’m doing. It’s like, no, I’m the culmination of that set of actions that hasn’t stopped in that line of dominoes, I’m the piece that’s falling right now, and I’m setting in motion from where I am all these little, countless lines of dominoes that go out from me that are also stacked, that are falling and hitting the next one and hitting the next one. I’m just one stack in the long chain of dominoes. But it’s interesting how there’s this tendency to think I’m the domino, right? I’m the one domino that matters, when in reality, I’m just one in a long, long, long line of countless lines of dominoes that I’m a part of, this intricate web of falling dominoes. And it goes on.
So that’s a fun way for me to revisit this specific Zen Koan. So that’s the invitation of this one and all the other ones, right? To explore these as a moment of exploration, as a moment of inquisitive exploration. The point of the koan isn’t to solve it. I think the beauty of the koan isn’t in finding the answer, the beauty of the koan is in exploring the koan itself. I think if we can approach these with that mentality of, “I don’t care to solve this, it’s not about solving it. In fact, I don’t even need to solve it.” Then the koan is open to just be explored with curiosity. And in that exploration with curiosity, incredible moments of insight can arise. That’s how we want to explore these koans. Those are my thoughts on this specific one about The Short Staff.
So, the topic of the podcast episode I want to discuss today has to do the eightfold path. Specifically, the topic of right speech, or what I like to call it, skillful communication. So in Buddhism we talk about the eightfold path. And this consists of eight practices. There’s right understanding, right intent, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. I talk about this in several podcast episodes, episode 83 for example, the eightfold path. I’m pretty sure in that one I talk about it. I mention how I prefer the use of the word skillful or wise rather than right. Because when we think of right, we usually think of it in terms of right versus wrong. This is a little bit more along the lines of skillful versus non-skillful.
So today specifically, I want to address one part of the path, which is right speech, or we’ll call it skillful speech or skillful communication. Communication, as you know, it’s a two-way street. When we communicate with someone, we’re listening to what someone else is saying, or we’re communicating what we’re hoping to get across. Communication always takes place like that between two people.
We can learn to improve our skillfulness in communicating by, one, changing the way that we listen. This is something I talk about in episode 86, listening to understand. And that’s one part of communication, is listening. But the other part has to do with improving how we communicate. In other words, how we speak, and that’s what I want to address today in this specific podcast episode.
So the way we communicate with ourselves and others, it’s an essential part of creating a peaceful and harmonious life. Which is what we’re all after, right? We want a content, peaceful, harmonious life, and communication is a huge part of that, because we’re social creatures, and communication is perhaps the most important part of our human relations.
So in this sense, when we think about right speech, or wise speech, it’s often referred to as communicating with others in a way that doesn’t cause harm. And yes, that includes any form of communication, whether it’s writing, speaking, texting, emailing, and even how we communicate on Facebook. So lying, gossiping and insulting others is very obviously not wise speech, it’s just not wise. But neither are things like compliments that you don’t mean, promises that you don’t intend to keep, or just sucking up to someone because you want to impress them.
So, with wise speech, we consider why and how we say something as much as what we actually say. I think this is what I wanted to emphasize, because often we think about wise speech in the context of, “What should I say? Or what should I not say?” And we don’t focus so much on the, “Why am I saying this?” Or, “How am I communicating this?”
So consider the difference between constructive criticism versus destructive criticism. One may be hard to hear, but the goal is to help you become better at what you’re doing. So a coach, for example, may give you constructive criticism, and it’s hard to hear; but at the end of the day, it’s a beneficial thing.
And the latter, destructive criticism, that’s intended only to cause pain. “I’m going to say this because I know that this is going to hurt you.” And wise speech doesn’t always have to be pleasant. It’s not about being nice, and it’s certainly not about withholding ideas out of fear that someone might disagree, but it should be about trying to be sincere and genuine in what we’re trying to convey.
I recently came across a communication worksheet that’s used in the Big Life Journal. And just as a quick side note, if you have kids, you need to check out biglifejournal.com. They have a lot of exercises and worksheets that you can download that help you to convey big topics, big ideas to your children. I’ve found that they’ve been very beneficial just in communicating in my own marriage and in understanding myself and a bunch of other things. So check out Big Life Journal.
But this specific worksheet I was working with had a tool to help teach communication styles to children. So we had a little family lesson about it a few weeks ago, and I think it would be beneficial to share this here on the podcast. This will benefit anyone who communicates, whether it’s in marriages, in your family dynamics between parents and children, between siblings or just at work with coworkers. Anyone will benefit greatly from understanding some common communication styles.
So consider the three following communication styles in terms of this concept of wise speech. So first, we have passive communication, and this is a common communication style found among people who tend to avoid conflict. This is almost 100% my style of communicating. Passive communicators, we may have the tendency to say whatever we feel needs to be said in order to keep things in peace and harmony, and it may lead to things like resentment or misconceptions in communication, because the message that we intend to communicate may not be clear. Passive communicators tend to build things up and then shift over time to passive-aggressive or even explosive communication styles once that limit has been reached. That’s kind of how I feel my default mode of communication is. It’s very passive. I tend to avoid conflict, and when you’re paired with someone who has an aggressive style of communication, in this case, I have family members that are aggressive, my own spouse communicates in a much more aggressive style of communication. And that can cause conflict with a passive communicator, because I won’t say what I want to say. So this is why this topic hits home for me.
Let’s talk about aggressive real quick. The aggressive communication style will get the message across, usually loud and clear, but often fails to be skillful in the delivery method or in the tone or in the timing of when they say what they need to say. It’s kind of like the bull in the china shop approach. It’s like, “Okay bull, we got the message that you wanted to get out, but you broke a lot of stuff in the process, and that wasn’t pleasant.” The aggressive communicators tend to feel like they need to express whatever they think right then at whatever social or emotional cost to themselves or to others in the room. I want to emphasize this, there’s nothing inherently bad or wrong with either of those styles, but they’re not the most skillful way to communicate.
All of us are probably in one or sometimes both of those communication styles depending on what mood we’re in, on whether or not we’ve had our breakfast, depending on what life circumstances we’re experiencing at any given moment in our lives. You’ve probably found yourself to be in one or the other of those two camps, or maybe at times in both.
But there’s a third communication style, and this is what was talked about in that worksheet that I really enjoyed. This is the style of communication that is much more skillful. It’s called assertive communication. The assertive communicator knows what they want to communicate, but also knows how and why and when the communication should be expressed. So it’s a form of skillful communication, and it takes a lot of introspection and self-analysis to become skilled in this communication style, because I don’t think it’s a natural way of communicating. We have to practice it.
I like this one the most, because it puts the responsibility of communicating skillfully on me, the communicator, and not on anyone else. Because sometimes it’s easy to get caught in this way of thinking of, “Well I’m expressing my communication to you, why are you not getting it?” When we think that way, it’s like, well, that puts all the responsibility on the one thing we can’t control, which is what someone else hears. But this puts a little bit more of the emphasis back on me, which says, “If you’re not getting what I’m trying to say, then it’s on me to try to rephrase it or say it a different way.” That’s been especially helpful in my own marriage and in the way that I communicate with my wife, and I’ll get into that in a little bit.
Essentially this requires me to get to know myself and also to know who I’m communicating with so that I can develop the most skillful approach, whether I’m talking to my mom or whether I’m talking to my dad or whether I’m talking to my wife or whether I’m talking to my twin brother or whoever it is I’m talking to. Same with my children, right? Each one of them has a different communication style, so how I communicate with each one of them may be slightly different, too.
One of the effective ways that we learn to practice this style of assertive communication is to use what are called [I-messages 00:00:18:13], and that follows a simple formula. I want to share it with you. So the I-message essentially says, “I feel,” and then you insert the emotion there, “when you,” and then you insert the behavior and then the request. “I would like you to,” and you insert the request. So I’m going to repeat that. “I feel,” insert the emotion, “when you,” insert behavior, “I would like you to,” insert request.
So I’m going to give you an example of how this is used. Let’s say I’m at home, and I’m thinking just off the top of my head. Let’s say, I don’t know, the kids come home, and they are throwing all their stuff around and making a mess. So an aggressive communicator could say, “Hey, pick up your crap! Throw it [inaudible 00:19:01] Don’t put it here!” Blah, blah, blah. And you’ll get the message across, but it may hurt the feelings of the one child that’s passive. It may immediately cause the aggressive child to want to put up their wall and defenses and butt heads with me, lock horns. It may not be the most effective way to communicate.
So consider the I-message format here. I would say, “Kids, I feel stressed out when you guys come home and throw your stuff around, because I’ve been cleaning the house all day. I would like it if you came home and you put your bags where they’re supposed to go.” That simple expression changes it. Now I’m communicating the same message, but the I-message format works because it’s non-judgmental. It’s not about blaming or criticizing, and it keeps the listener from feeling attacked or defensive. I’m expressing very clear words how I feel when a certain behavior is demonstrated, and therefore I would request a certain action.
When we’re communicating with people who have different views or beliefs than our own, which to some degree, let’s be honest, that’s everyone we know, we often struggle to communicate our deep emotional needs for fear of offending each other. Then we end up communicating our needs in non-skillful ways, like passive communication or aggressive communication or even worse, passive-aggressive communication. These ways of communicating end up doing more harm than good. So understanding this way of skillful communication or wise speech, we can become more assertive in our communication style that allows us to feel like we’ve been heard and allows us to be better at hearing and understanding what’s being said.
So that’s what I wanted to share in terms of the communication style. For me, this has been a really powerful shift in changing the way that I express myself. As a passive communicator, who is often trying to communicate important messages to an aggressive communicator, it can be really tricky. I don’t like to feel attacked. I don’t like to feel belittled in my communication styles, so I have to be skillful in how I communicate, and this formula has been truly life changing in the way that I communicate in my relationship with my wife. But also in terms of communication with other deep things, like tricky subjects at work with coworkers or with clients or with a boss or having to let go of an employee, or whatever the scenario is that could be tricky. I think of it, for a long time, in terms of how can I skillfully communicate what needs to be communicated here? And then the communication comes across, and it’s often significantly more skillful that way than it would have been had I just gone with my default mode, which in my case is passive or in a default mode that’s aggressive, because I’m tired of being passive, so now it comes across aggressive.
So again, this is just something to think about in terms of the way that you communicate. Can you be more skillful? This is not dissing on people who are passive communicators like me. This is certainly not dissing on people who are aggressive communicators like my wife. You just tend to have a default style, and that’s kind of what you learned. It’s either genetic or life circumstances made you learn to communicate a certain way, and that’s been your default way of communicating. So this is about taking that and not just not necessarily changing it, but understanding, “Okay, this is my default way of communicating. How can I be more skillful with it?” And that’s been really helpful for me, understanding my default tends to be passive, which can often lead to passive-aggressive. So what can I do to be more skillful in how I communicate?
That’s what I want to end this podcast episode on. I want to invite you to try to be more skillful in your communication style. And again, this is one of the spokes on the path of living the eightfold path that we talk about and practice in Buddhism. It’s an area of your life that you can actually practice and become more skillful at, and I find that fascinating, because again, all of these teachings, this isn’t about the right way versus the wrong way. This is about saying, “Can I be a better whatever I already am?” And I’m already communicating with people every single day. “Can I be better at that?” Well, the eightfold path presents me with, well in this one area of life called communication, yeah, you can be better. But it’s about getting to know yourself and getting to know your audience, the people that you’re communicating with. And that for me, is a fascinating thing.
As we approach the end of this podcast episode, I want to remind you, I’ve been sharing these Zen Koans at the end, and I want to continue doing that, but I’m going to leave that for the very end. So this topic of of right speech, that’s all I have for this podcast episode. I want to thank you for listening, for being a part of the journey with me, and I want to invite you again to support the work that I’m doing with the podcast and consider becoming a patron and joining the online community.
I announced this last week, and it’s been incredible in this one week having the ability to discuss the koan with podcast listeners, discussing the podcast episode, doing some Q&A sessions and even starting a weekly study group has been a really fun, new way to communicate with podcast listeners and specifically people who are supporting the podcast. So if you’re interested in that, in having a sense of community, people that you can talk to about these specific topics, if you want to get on there and talk about this new koan I’m about to present you, you can learn more by visiting secularbuddhism.com. You’ll see the link there to join the community, or to support the podcast.
As always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, and that’s all I have for now. But before I let you go, here is your Zen Koan to work with for this week. The title of this koan is called No Cold and Heat.
A monk asked Tozan, “How can we escape the cold and heat?” Tozan replied, “Why not go where there’s no cold and heat?” “Is there such a place?” the monk asked. Tozan commented, “When cold, be thoroughly cold. When hot, be hot through and through.”
That’s all I have for this week. Thank you for listening. Until next time.