What does it mean to think before you speak?
“Each of us has the responsibility to be wakeful of what effects we are producing in others’ minds when we speak; and when we listen, we also have the opportunity to enter into others’ experiences of things we cannot experience ourselves.”—Robert Thurman, Wisdom Is Bliss
The phrase “think before you speak” refers to the mindfulness practice of reflecting on the impact of your words before sharing them with others. Being a good conversationalist is an important social skill that can be cultivated through thoughtful communication, self-awareness, compassion, and active listening. Words have power, they can hurt others, negatively impact mental health, or lead to negative outcomes. However, the right words can be inspirational, lift others up, creating a positive ripple effect.
Why should you think before you speak?
- Words and thoughts shape your reality
- The stories you tell yourself hugely impact how you see yourself and the world. Every time you speak about yourself, other people, or a situation, you are influencing how you will later perceive them. And the more you repeat these judgments, the deeper they become ingrained in your constructed reality.
- By cultivating a conscious awareness of your words and thoughts, you can actively shape our reality, for better or for worse. “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” —Henry Ford
- Good communication strengthens your connections with others
- The way that you communicate affects your relationships, whether it’s a family member, loved one, or stranger.
- Thoughtless communication can hurt others and yourself
- Saying the wrong thing, or even the “right thing” at the wrong time is a way to negatively impact the people around you as well as yourself.
- Thoughtful communication has a bigger impact than you know
- Kind words can truly change someone’s day. You never know what someone is going through and sometimes a small compliment can make all of the difference to them. When you are kind to someone this creates a magnificent ripple effect as they tend to feel happier and share this kindness with others.
- Being mindful helps you grow as a person and enjoy life more fully
- Personal growth can be an outcome of practicing thoughtful communication. Not only are you training patience, mindfulness, and focus, but the quality of your relationships will increase and consequently lead to a more joyful life.
The Buddhist perspective on thoughtful communication
“Speech is the particularly human deep way of interconnecting with the minds of others.”—Robert Thurman, Wisdom Is Bliss
Buddhism offers a holistic perspective on the importance of healthy communication, and how to be mindful of how we interact with our fellow human beings. It emphasizes that we must train our mind, using thinking skills to control our speech so it does not hurt others.
The Buddha taught thoughtful communication through the idea of “right speech.” Right speech is divided into four parts: abstaining from lying, abstaining from creating disharmony, abstaining from harsh speech, and abstaining from idle talk. The idea is that our speech should cultivate harmony and encouragement, and be appropriate for the time and place.
- Abstaining from lying
- “Truthful speech establishes a correspondence between our own inner being and the real nature of phenomena, allowing wisdom to rise up and fathom our real nature.” —Insight Meditation Center
- Speak the truth and do not try to deceive others. The Buddha saw lying as disruptive to society as we can only live in harmony if there is mutual trust. He also viewed lying as detrimental to oneself. If you lie once, you usually have to continue to lie to cover the past lies. You weave yourself into a false reality that is longer true to who you are.
- Abstaining from creating disharmony
- One should avoid speech that alienates and creates division. It is best to focus on speech that promotes friendship and harmony.
- Abstaining from harsh speech
- Avoid saying things that are rooted in anger with the intention to cause pain. The Buddha described three types of harsh speech: abusive speech, insult, and sarcasm.
- Abstaining from idle talk
- Avoid speech that doesn’t have purpose or depth. Don’t let the restless mind take control and search for talk that only indulges the self.
- This also applies to the stream of information and distraction that we receive from modern media, such as television, movies, and social media. Some of these can be considered idle talk that stunts our spiritual growth.
- It is useful to be conscious of what you are exposed to whether it is media or the people with whom you interact.
How to think before you speak
Clearly, thoughtful communication is important but how does one cultivate this useful tool and implement it into daily life? Four ways to think before you speak are to practice mindfulness, use empathy, take your time, and determine the purpose of your speech.
- Practice mindfulness
- When one doesn’t practice mindfulness, impulsivity takes over and we can say things we later regret. Notice the first place your mind goes when you feel triggered or attacked. Notice your body language and breath.
- One way to cultivate mindfulness is to practice meditation. Meditation can help you become more in tune with your emotions and thoughts even when you are not sitting down with your eyes closed.
- Another quick way to become mindful is to take deep breaths during conversations or before speaking. This connects you to your body, grounds you in the moment, and creates a sense of peace so you can think and respond clearly.
- Use empathy
- Empathy allows you to imagine how your words might make others feel. Everyone perceives the world differently, the same sentence can insult one person while bringing joyful laughter to another. So make sure to consider your audience, use empathy to put yourself in their shoes, and tailor your words with compassion.
- Take your time
- Our society is fast-paced and impulsivity has become an increasingly accepted and valued trait. It is good to remind yourself that it is okay to slow down and press the pause button. By slowing down, you can cultivate mindfulness and avoid making hurtful statements.
- Take your time in conversation by either directly asking for a couple of minutes, taking slow and deep breaths, or consciously speaking more slowly.
- Determine the purpose of your speech
- Make sure that you are clear on the purpose or intent of your speech. Are you trying to deceive, cause harm, or create division? Or are you trying to be loving, kind, and caring?
- Maybe you’ve become accustomed to gossip or fishing for conversations that feed your ego. Consider what impact these types of talks have on your life. Maybe these forms of conversation feel good in the moment, but do they improve your quality of life or foster your personal growth?
- One way to consider what purpose you want your speech to serve is by using affirmations. You can start your day by repeating or writing your affirmations in order to shape your intentions for the day. Some examples are: I act with kindness, I spread love, I bring joy to others, and I make others feel heard.
- You can also use meditation to set intentions for how you want to interact with the world. Loving-kindness is an especially powerful meditation that is great for cultivating love for all beings.
Disclaimer: This post is not medical advice. Before taking on specific meditation techniques or other treatments for a psychological or health problem, please consult a psychologist or medical professional regarding your specific health conditions.