One of my intentions for the New Year is to speak less and listen more. It might seem unusual for a communicator, educator, and coach to cultivate silence, yet the wisest teachers I’ve encountered speak little. When they do talk, their eloquence is inspiring.
One way I’ve been putting this to practice is to ask myself three questions before speaking. It can be extremely illuminating to witness the mind as you consider:
- Is your contribution necessary?
- Is it useful?
- Is it kind?
For one, you quickly find yourself using time more wisely. It’s extraordinary how much precious time gets wasted with chatter.
When you notice what you’re thinking and considering saying before you say it, you can learn a lot about yourself. It can also help you grow more aware of tendencies – or occasional temptations – to jump to conclusions, negative thoughts or worry.
Such thoughts are hardly unusual. In fact, the ease with which we can run with them may be part of our very make-up – the remnants of an early survival mechanism from a time when threats to our very existence were a constant concern.
But while it may be normal, it’s rarely useful.
Witnessing potential speech before speaking creates an opportunity for alchemy. And each time we transform our negative thoughts, we lessen the potential for misunderstanding and suffering and strengthen our capacity for mindfulness.
An example from my own life takes me back to the first chair yoga class I taught at a New York vocational center for blind and low vision adults. I was replacing a beloved teacher who’d relocated.
“I want our regular teacher!” yelled one of the students, fiercely kicking a cane she’d stumbled over upon entering the room. “I hate you!”
I had zero experience handling such anger. I was speechless. But this, I later realized, was a blessing. It bought me time to think. I knew that the success of subsequent classes would likely rest on how I handled this delicate, even scary situation.
I took a deep breath.
And then I explained the yogic concept of ahimsa – non-violence. I carefully yet firmly told the disruptive student that if she wanted to stay, she had to play by the rules. Since we didn’t know each other, I told her I’d give her the benefit of the doubt, even though her actions had been disruptive and potentially dangerous. But she had to choose now whether to stay and participate civilly or leave.
I told her we’d wait for her decision.
She thought about it for a few moments, then vigorously nodded yes, she wanted to stay.
Through subsequent classes – and there were many, as I was there for 6 rewarding years – she became a model student, setting up chairs before I arrived and helping other students enter and exit. The administrator of the program said that her socialization skills took a big leap during the time that she participated in the classes.
Now, this isn’t about ignoring, denying or pretending the negative feelings aren’t there. That’s not the point. Emotional intelligence is.
Studies show that the ability to identify and label emotions correctly, and talk about them straightforwardly to the point of feeling understood, makes negative feelings dissipate. And the physiologic arousal that accompanies those feelings also diminishes dramatically.
- Write the three questions on a sticky note and place it on a mirror, the edge of your computer monitor or somewhere else where you can see it regularly.
- Use the questions – particularly in challenging situations – and allow mindfulness to guide your words and actions. Notice if this doesn’t contribute to more meaningful communication in all areas of your life.