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Beneficial Communication

There is wisdom in Buddha’s teachings, regardless of your religious or spiritual inclinations. In her book Tea and Cake with Demons: A Buddhist Guide to Feeling Worthy, Adreanna Limbach does an excellent job presenting a modern interpretation of Buddhist teachings. Today, I want to explore one aspect of Buddha’s Eightfold Path, often called Right Speech. I prefer Limbach’s more modern framing, as she calls this Beneficial Communication.

When communicating, do you consider Buddha’s five Gates of Speech? These gates suggest your communication should be delivered:

  • At the right time.
  • In truth.
  • Affectionately.
  • Beneficially.
  • With a mind of goodwill.

Let’s explore each of these gates.

Communicating at the Right Time

“The right conversation, in the wrong mood, is the wrong conversation.” – Julio Olalla.

We have all had that experience where we blurted out a response in the heat of the moment and dearly wished we had paused for a few seconds to consider our thoughts before we opened our mouths. Text messaging and email even have a few seconds built-in for you to undo when you hit send a little too hastily. This is a focus area for many of my clients: creating the space for reflection before communicating to make sure their words are chosen with care.

I’ve written a lot about this subject recently. In Great Leaders Speak Last, I share what I have learned over the years about the timing of my communication, particularly when leading a team. I also am a firm believer in strengthening your ability to be present. The better you are at being fully present, the better equipped you will be to pause in the moment and be thoughtful and timely with your communication.

Communicating in Truth

In her book, Limbach separates truth into “Big-T” truth, which are facts, and “Little-T” truth, which are our judgments or beliefs that are not universally true. I unpacked this in my blog post on assertions and assessments, which are the distinctions I learned in ontological coaching. An assertion is a fact – I am 5’6” tall. That fact may be true or false, but there is an objective standard of measure we can use to determine if it is true. An assessment is a judgment or belief – I am short. There is no universal standard for short.

The distinction is important, as we often present a Little-T judgment as a Big-T fact. If our life experiences reinforce that perspective strongly enough, building up neural pathways, we begin to believe the judgment as a fact internally—a master assessment. Consider the case of a child who is told repeatedly throughout childhood that they are not good at math. By adulthood, they take this as fact and avoid math courses, even though they likely have the talents if they were just encouraged to exercise them.

When you communicate, keep in mind this distinction between facts and judgments. You will improve your credibility and connect more deeply with others when you take care not to present your personal truth as if it is a Big-T truth.

Communicating Affectionately

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Can you imagine what communication was like before we had writing? When you had to communicate something to another person, you had to be in the same physical space with them, looking them in the eye as you said it? Every time?

I expect there was a lot more affectionate communication at that time. We have evolved to a world where we can go on social media and post a message without even knowing who will read it. We can fire off an email or a text message without seeing the reaction on the recipient’s face as they read it. For many, communicating affectionately is a lost art.

I believe every communication should be wrapped in loving kindness. If you are feeling worked up, give yourself time to calm down and center yourself before you communicate – whether saving the draft email without hitting send until tomorrow or telling someone you need a few minutes to calm down before you continue a conversation. Treat each communication with the same care you would if you were delivering it face-to-face.

If you are questioning the other person’s intentions and preparing to go into battle, take a moment to consider different perspectives. I grew up with the mantra to “assume positive intent.” One of my favorite ways to do this is to pause and ask myself, “What’s a more generous interpretation of the situation?” That’s also one of my favorite coaching questions with clients. As you open up other perspectives, you enable yourself to shift into a mindset of curiosity. Seek to understand, not to be right.

Communicating Beneficially

We think of language as a tool to describe our experience, which it is, but it is so much more. Language is generative. We create reality through our use of language. The Declaration of Independence created the United States of America. When you understand the profound impact of language on our world, you begin to recognize the crucial importance of beneficial communication.

In her book, You As The Mind of Creation, Tantra Maat discusses shifting our thoughts from life-depleting and life-defeating to life-enhancing and life-generating. This has become foundational for me as I engage in Beneficial Communication. Am I choosing words that are life-enhancing or words that are life-depleting? I often challenge my clients when they head down a negative path to explore whether those thoughts are serving them well.

One of my favorite examples of the power of Beneficial Communication was my final month at Ellucian. I had turned in my notice and was preparing to launch my coaching practice. As I began my farewell 1:1 tour, connecting with colleagues for the last time, I recognized some people would not be engaging in Beneficial Communication with me. They would see a departing employee as an opportunity to vent about the challenges in the organization. Recognizing this was not the way I wanted to exit the company, I opened each conversation with this statement:

“I’m grateful for my time with Ellucian. I want to make the most of these last few days working alongside so many good friends.”

That simple statement steered each conversation to a positive, life-enhancing discussion.

If you have negative thoughts running through your head, you reinforce their neural pathways every time you repeat them. If you want to engage neuroplasticity and shift those thoughts, you need to generate awareness of your thoughts and begin consciously shifting your perspective from life-defeating to life-enhancing.

Communicating With a Mind of Goodwill

Limbach offers two powerful questions for the fifth gate:

  • “Am I saying this in the spirit of goodwill? Or is there still a little bit of malice on my tongue?”
  • “Am I the best person to deliver this message?”

As you prepare to communicate, consider your relationship with the other person. Is the relationship strained in any way that will hamper your ability to communicate effectively? This may relate back to finding the right time—giving yourself the time and space you need to re-center before you engage in communication to ensure you can do so with a mind of goodwill.

Also, consider the relationship within the context of the situation. One of the common pitfalls of giving feedback is triangulation. Person A is uncomfortable giving feedback to Person B, for whatever reason, so they instead provide it to Person C (usually Person A’s manager) and expect Person C to deliver the feedback on their behalf. Person C is rarely the right person to deliver the feedback. They are removed from the situation. When I am Person C in this situation, I coach Person B to give the feedback directly to Person A and offer to facilitate the conversation if needed.

In other cases, we may be too close to the situation. There are countless times when I’ve wanted to coach my children, and I’m happy to do so whenever they ask for it. I’ve learned that being coached by Dad often doesn’t work for them. So now I make the offer and don’t get upset when they decline it, knowing I may not be the right person to deliver the message.

Putting It Into Practice

Embrace the five Gates of Speech to practice Beneficial Communication:

  • Give yourself the space you need to ensure you are communicating at the right time.
  • Take care not to communicate your judgments and beliefs in a way that suggests they are facts.
  • Wrap each communication in loving kindness. Look for alternate perspectives if you are struggling to assume positive intent.
  • Shift your thinking and communication from life-depleting to life-enhancing. Help others do the same.
  • Consider whether you are the right person to deliver the message.

I am an executive coach and life coach with software executive roots in higher education and EdTech. I coach because I love to help others accelerate their growth as leaders and humans. I frequently write about #management, #leadership, #coaching, #neuroscience, and #arete.

If you would like to learn more, schedule time with me.

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