Speaking More Wisely in Relationships

Words of wisdom from one of the wisest, Rick Hanson, taken from his blog post of September 13, 2012:

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Ah, not really. Often it’s words, and the tone that comes with them, that actually do the most damage. Just think back on some of the things that have been said to you over the years – especially those said with criticism, derision, shaming, anger, rejection, or scorn; and the impacts they’ve had on your feelings, hopes and ambitions, and your sense of yourself.

Words can hurt since the emotional pain networks in your brain overlap with physical pain networks (the effects of this intertwining go both ways. For example, studies have shown that receiving social support reduces the perceived intensity of physical pain, and – remarkably – that giving people Tylenol reduced the pain of social rejection).

Besides their momentary effects, these hurts can linger – even for a lifetime. The residues of hurtful words sift down into emotional memory to cast long shadows over the inner landscapes of your mind. Plus they can alter a relationship forever. Just think about the ripple effects of things said between parents and children, from one sibling to another, or among in-laws. Or between friends. (Or, perhaps most devastatingly, between romantic partners / spouses – added comment from Jim Weinstein).

So do what you can to protect yourself from hurtful words from others. Prevent them in the first place, if possible, by “talking about talking” with others (perhaps share the guidelines below). If that doesn’t work, try to see the underlying pain and needs that could have triggered them to “let ‘er rip,” put their words in perspective, turn towards resources in yourself and in your true friends, and shift the size or nature of the relationship if that’s appropriate (and possible).


I’ve gotten a great deal of personal value from six guidelines offered 2500 years ago by the Buddha:

Well intended – Comes from good will, not ill will; constructive; aimed to build up, not tear down.

True – Not overstated, taken out of context, or blown-up out of proportion.

 Beneficial – Helps things get better, not worse (even if it takes a while).

Timely – Not driven by impulsivity. Nor a rehash of long-ago grievances (added comment by JW).

Not harsh – It could be firm, pointed, or intense; it could confront mistreatment or injustice; anger could be acknowledged; but it is not prosecutorial, nasty, inflammatory, dismissive, disdainful, or snarky.

And if possible it is:

Wanted by the other person

If they don’t want to hear it, you may just not need to say it; but there will be other cases when you need to speak for yourself, whether the other person likes it or not – and then it’s more likely to go well if you follow the first five guidelines. However, pay particular attention to whether you really need to say it, and don’t just blurt it out (added comment from JW).

But realistically, in the first moments of an argument, sometimes people stray out of bounds. In important, delicate, or tricky situations – or as soon as you realize you’ve gone over the line – then it’s time to communicate with care, and with wisdom. The six guidelines do not guarantee that the other person will respond the way you want. But they will raise the odds of a good outcome, plus you will know in your heart that you stayed in control of yourself, had good intentions, and have nothing to feel guilty about later.

Reflect on the six guidelines as you consider how to approach an important conversation. Then be natural; if you simply speak from your heart, have good intentions, and keep returning to the truth as you know it, it is hard not to speak wisely! If things get heated, stay grounded in wise speech; be clear that how you speak is your own responsibility, no matter what the other person does. If you stray from the guidelines, acknowledge that to yourself, and perhaps to the other person.

With time and a little practice (and reflecting on important past discussions or arguments in which you adhered or strayed to these guidelines – added comment from JW), you will find yourself speaking more wisely without consciously thinking about it. You might be amazed at the powerful, assertive ways you can communicate within the framework of the six guidelines; consider the examples of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa.

And – for a little bonus here – how about practicing wise speech in the way you talk to yourself?