Skillful Speech

By working with the lay precept on speech, we can learn to say the right thing at the right time.

Allan Lokos

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Years ago, when I began traveling the Buddha’s path, I was surprised by the emphasis placed on the practice of skillful speech. The Buddha considered the way we communicate with each other to be so important that he taught the practice of skillful speech alongside such lofty teachings as skillful view, thinking, action, and mindfulness as a pillar of the Ennobling Eightfold Way. The Buddha saw that we are always engaged in relationships, starting with that most significant relationship: the one with ourselves. On the cushion we notice how we speak to ourselves—sometimes with compassion, sometimes with judgment or impatience. Our words are a powerful medium with which we can bring happiness or cause suffering.

Skillful speech begins by refraining from lying, slander, profanity, and harsh language. We should avoid language that is rude, abusive, disagreeable, or malicious, and we should abstain from talk that is foolish, idle, babble, or gossip. What remains are words that are truthful, kind, gentle, useful, and meaningful. Our speech will comfort, uplift, and inspire, and we will be a joy to those around us.

Jim Frazier / Getty ImagesThe pillar of skillful speech is to speak honestly, which means that we should even avoid telling little white lies. We need to be aware of dishonesty in the forms of exaggerating, minimizing, and self-aggrandizing. These forms of unskillful speech often arise from a fear that what we are is not good enough––and that is never true. Honesty begins at home, so the practice of skillful speech begins with being honest with ourselves.

The Buddha cautioned against gossip because he saw the suffering that this kind of unskillful speech causes. There is an old Hasidic tale of a villager who was feeling remorse for the harm his gossip had caused his neighbor. He went to his rabbi to seek advice. The rabbi suggested that he go to town and buy a chicken and bring it back to him, and that on the way back he pluck it completely. When the man returned with the featherless chicken, the rabbi told him to retrace his steps and gather every one of the scattered feathers. The man replied that it would be impossible; by now the feathers were probably blown throughout the neighboring villages. The rabbi nodded in agreement, and the man understood: we can never really take back our words. As the Zen poet Basho wrote:

The temple bell stops but the sound keeps coming out of the flowers.

Gossip is defined as speaking about someone who is not physically present. It doesn’t matter whether what is said is positive or negative. If the person is not there, it is gossip. If we have to speak about someone who is not present, we should speak of them as if they were there. An exercise that I do once or twice a year is to designate a specific period of time—a week or a month—when I do not speak about anyone who is not present. I find that my voice gets quite a rest, and the part of my ego that believes I do not gossip gets quite a jolt. Every time I do the exercise I find that the effects of this awareness practice are with me for weeks, and even months, afterward. When I start to speak about someone, a little reminder beeps in my mind: “Don’t gossip.”

A word about teasing—don’t! Teasing is always at someone’s expense and often hurts more than the person being teased lets on. Simply stated, teasing causes suffering. The same energy used to create a tease can be used to create an honest compliment.

Skillful speech has a communicative partner called deep listening. No matter how unskillful their speech, people are often trying to communicate something hidden beneath their words. What does “Daddy, I hate you!” really mean from a child in the midst of a temper tantrum? What does “Now that you’re dating Robert, you have no time for me” mean from an old friend? These angry comments express a desire for more attention. When we listen deeply, taking time to breathe, we can avoid a conditioned reaction that could cause suffering and instead respond compassionately to what is beneath the harsh words. We can comfort our child with our love or assure our friend that she is important to us and that we will try to spend more time with her.

At times noble silence is the most skillful speech. For several years I facilitated a weekly sangha. The sangha rules were that no one commented on anything that was said by another member during the discussion period. We didn’t even say, “I agree with Bob,” or “My sister went through the same thing.” All we did was listen. Over time, we realized how often our minds were busy preparing a response when we thought we were actually listening. Knowing that we would not respond dramatically changed the way we listened.

One evening a young woman joined us, and during the discussion period she shared with the group that she had just lost her 37-year-old husband to cancer. Over the ensuing weeks, when she spoke we often could not understand her words through her heavy sobbing. Sometimes our eyes also filled with tears as we listened but did not comment. To witness a person pouring her heart out and going through such suffering while feeling as if we were offering her nothing felt strange.

Then one day she told us that she had left her various support groups because she was receiving exactly what she needed from our sangha. We were allowing her to experience and express her pain without judging or offering quick fixes. We were present for her, bearing witness to her sorrow, holding her in silent compassion. Being truly present for another is the greatest gift we can offer. Sometimes people need to be sad, and noble silence can be truly ennobling.

When we consider skillful speech today, we must also consider a phenomenon that did not exist in the time of the Buddha: email. With the popularity of the telephone, we became a people that, for the most part, abandoned the practice of letter writing. What a perfect recipe for unskillful speech: a people long unpracticed at thoughtful letterwriting now equipped with the technological capability to churn out one quick email after another. Writer beware!

The most important step in developing skillful speech is to think before speaking (or writing). This is called mindfulness of speech. Few things can improve the nature of our relationships as much as the development of skillful speech. Silence offers us, and those around us, the spaciousness we need to speak more skillfully. When we speak with greater skill, our true self—our compassionate, loving self—emerges with gentle ease. So before you speak, stop, breathe, and consider if what you are about to say will improve upon the silence. ▼

Allan Lokos is an Interfaith minister, meditation teacher, and author. He is the co-founder and director of the Community of Peace and Spirituality and the founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City.

Image: © Jim Frazier/Getty Images

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Speech is defined by temperament I can remember casting vulgarities at others when my condition was unstable, since I have reconciled everything with the years that have passed my speech is defined by a temperament that is in good stead.

fgauer1's picture

This article is absolutely wonderful. Thank you! This is something I really need to work on!

John Haspel's picture

Mr. Lokos has written a most skillful article and a wonderful example of Skillful Speech. Of course the Buddha taught Skillful, or Right Speech as one of the virtuous factors included in the Eightfold Path of liberation and freedom.

Right Speech, as well as Right Action and Right Livelihood are quickly developed within the overall framework of the entire Eightfold Path. Grounded in initial Right View that the ego-self’s perceptions and mental fabrications are the cause for delusion and suffering, and the Right Intention to recognize and abandon clinging to objects, views, and ideas, hurtful speech becomes apparent and is readily abandoned. Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation all support deepening concentration (samadhi) necessary to recognize and root out the more subtle aspects of hurtful speech.

The Eightfold Path is a path of developing heightened virtue and heightened concentration resulting in heightened wisdom. The virtuous factors of Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood , the concentration factors of Right Effort, Mindfulness, and Meditation, and the Wisdom factors of Right View and Right Intention are mutually supportive of directly achieving awakening as described by the Buddha as “unbound” and “released” from clinging to views arising from the ignorant belief of an ego-personality.

Free of clinging there is no foundation for any irrational or hurtful behavior, toward other’s or towards self. Free of clinging all communication is imbued with understanding, generosity and compassion.

John Haspel

margaretwaddell's picture

How about everyone giving their thumbs a rest for a month each year?

dalic's picture

Another good one, that hits home. I find myself talking to one coworker about another coworker that is not necessarily fulfilling my expectations. I know at the time that this is not right. I need to stop, but I truly find it a way to shed stress. It's not right to do this, though. Other forms of shedding stress are beneficial, unlike this one.

mards's picture

Interesting article. But how about the parable of the burning house or the empty fist?
In my humble opinion skillful speech have many takes and interpretations. I also believe that cultural definitions are to be considered since what is appropriate for one culture might not be for another.
Silence - for instance - when one is sharing a broken heart, a great loss, might be considered lack of caring and compassion.
Ethnicity and culture defines often our sense of humor and the context in which we joke with others and warmly bring out a laughter. I feel these teachings are very important yet a broader context is needed.



Dominic Gomez's picture

Ahh, the burning house. The Lotus Sutra is a treasure trove of skillful analogies.

cheryl.cummins's picture

A very insightful and inspirational article. Thank you. I can also wholeheartedly recommjend Allan's book titled 'Patience', it is excellent.

Hanny2's picture

the other day at work I spoke unkindly about a colleague who was speaking unkindly, a double-negative which did not result in a positive.

dixraile's picture

Thank you so much for this article. I often get myself in trouble with my words so I have a 3 question rule I apply whenever I am about to speak: 1) Is it necessary? 2) Is it kind? 3) Is it helpful? When I hit a "no" answer I refrain from speaking. I am amazed by how often the first answer is no and so I just stop there.
I do have to really be in touch with my emotions as I find it more difficult to be accurate and honest when in the midst of irritation over something.

quiltersally.quilter's picture

I thought that this was so good that I passed it on to my sangha. Thanks.

Dominic Gomez's picture

At present skillful tweets are all the rage ;-)

Frederick S.'s picture

Nicely done. Absolutely loaded with priceless reminders.

robertomainetti's picture

thank you very much...wanderful...

Le-o's picture

I love this topic. One thing I want to inquire about is spontaneity. Sometimes the most wonderful gifts come from the "without missing a beat" moments. Is it your experience that the more one practices mindfulness, skilled speech and compassion that spontaneity returns but with these qualities embedded in it?

csbechard's picture

What a wonderful article. I am taking the final sentence with me today to reflect on.

sabina's picture

From one who loves to play with words I realize now how much that urge needs to be monitored.
and simply nipped in the bud. The chicken plucking was a wonderful visual for me--all those "feathers"
blowing in the wind...near impossible to retrieve... Thanks for the insight.

etter3350's picture

I really like the idea of the excerise where you refrain from speaking of anyone that is not present. I'm giving it a try, and it's harder than it looks.
Thank you.

twl4148's picture

One of the best "applied" descriptions I've read in some time. Thank you.

Sukha's picture

I can't say why, exactly, but this article really touches me. I think it's because it made me realize with shocking clarity how UN-skillful my own speech is. I often find myself babbling away just to fill the silence. I find myself wondering what it is that makes silence so uncomfortable for me -- am I afraid, as the last lines say, of my "true self" being revealed? Do I feel I have to fill up the space and 'impress' people? Such are the trappings of my ego I suppose...
I look forward to watching my speech more mindfully in the coming days and incorporating many of these tips. Especially noble silence. Thank you for the encouragement.

docmts's picture

Years ago, I was in a Quaker Meeting (sit in the round in silence, and speak only if moved to do so) and heard a quote similar to this; "Will what I have to say, improve upon the silence?" I never spoke in Quaker Meeting, because I couldn't ever answer, "Yes." Now, after practicing Buddhism, for 3+ years, I am more certain than ever that my words will never improve upon the silence. Tall order, indeed. I appreciate the June 15th reply from "steveinmo," above. In a worldly sense, this query about speaking is a great "brake," on my motor mouth. Thanks for the opportunity to speak up. -Nick Saunders (docmts)

mfwilsonelm's picture

Just as I was searching for ways to practice right speech, your article appeared in my inbox. I am grateful.

wedeswit's picture

Thank you.

Kenneth Daly's picture

The parable about the chicken feathers is used very effectively in the movie, Doubt.

Dunkster's picture

Thank you for this. A wonderful reminder. I also want to add how powerful a sangha can be! A few years ago I was going through a rough time and all I could do was cry during meditation. It was so powerful to have that space held. No one ever said anything to me about it, but yet, I could feel the compassion! It was such a healing experience!

steveinmo's picture

I'm glad to see this article, newish to Buddhism, and needed a reminder that I fall back into old ways long before I spot it.  The tips are a timely reminder for me.

sammie's picture

thank you

reval's picture


Rev. Allan Lokos
Founder/Guiding Teacher
Community Meditation Center