Say the right thing
Since at least the time of the ancients (and probably before), humans have tried to define and codify what it means to speak well, to say the right thing. While I do not claim to have a definitive answer to that old question, I would offer you that speaking well should have three components— it should be true, it should be kind, and it should be helpful. I like simple rules that can govern complex situations and simple principles that lead to complex behavior. In difficult situations, or when trying to figure out how to approach talking with someone (particularly about a challenging subject), or wondering what to say, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?
True: This is not a trick, not complicated, and it is supposed to be simple. What we say should be, to the best of our ability, true. Lying, even little lies, gets us into trouble. This is the case with small, white lies (I’ll be home in 10 minutes), it is true when we tell whoppers (No, I have no idea what happened to the money in the savings account), and it is particularly pernicious when we say things that are half-truths.
Dishonesty with others often sprouts from a seed of dishonesty with ourselves. Speaking the truth often starts from within— by speaking truth to ourselves. Confronting our fears, contradictions, and uncertainties requires courage and honesty, but it leads to more ease in speaking the truth to others. Interestingly, when we are truthful with ourselves and truthful with others, life goes easier. A huge amount of our worries and anxieties come from these discrepancies and melt away when they have been resolved.
Our lives are easier when we are truthful, but the truth can be a lot to carry. As Pope Francis I said (before he became the pope), “Truth may be vital, but without love it is unbearable.” This leads to the second part of speaking well— what you say should be kind.
Kind: Think of the last time you have been hurt— or deeply misunderstood, and of the deep desire that arose from that situation to really tell someone off about the truth about the situation. Or think about someone who is such an idiot that they are just begging to be told the reality of life. Think about how good it would feel to really lay it for them, really lay the truth on the table. Then, take that speech and ask yourself, is it kind?
When we talk to others, it is not only being truthful and honest that matters— it is also being kind. Without kindness, being truthful is isolating. Without the softness of kindness, the truth can be harsh and abrasive. When we take the truth and wrap it in a blanket of kindness, we not only avoid hurting the people we care about, but we also make it much easier to actually relate. Think back to the paragraph above, of really setting someone straight, and now think about how that same truth could be delivered in the kindest way possible. Kind does not mean that you are diluting the message— instead, it is delivering the message with love instead of anger. Even the hardest truths to speak can be said with kindness. As the Dalai Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.“
We often use the need for honesty to escape the responsibility for saying it kindly. We tell ourselves, “well, sometimes the truth hurts. Nothing I can do about that. Sorry you don’t like it. Too bad.” However, this is a false choice– the obligation to speak the truth co-exists with the obligation to speak kindly.
On the other hand, we sometimes avoid telling the truth because we are afraid that doing so would be unkind. “That’s not something that they need to know,” we tell ourselves. Out of concern and kindness for others, we skirt around the heart of the issue. Telling falsehoods or half-truths under the banner of kindness is not wise– there is no kindness in lying. Tell the truth, but tell it kindly.
Lastly, what we say should be helpful. This idea has different meanings and related corollaries. To be helpful, things need to be said at the right time. Most of us recognize that there is sometimes a right time, and a wrong time, to bring something up. Helpful includes the idea of helpful in the moment. A truth, delivered with kind words but at the wrong time, is not going to pass the helpful test. Helpful also means that what is said moves things along. It has a purpose. It leads us in the right direction, even if it does not get all the way there. In moments when there is nothing helpful to say, instead of speaking, perhaps instead we need to listen, to just be preesnt.
Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful? Try passing your thoughts through these gates, and only speaking aloud those things that pass all three tests. I’ll be interested to hear how it goes, and what you discover.