Right Speech, Part One

Ever since I came across Buddhism in my early twenties, I have been fascinated with the concept of right speech. As part of my exploration into the subject, I have studied multiple sutras that focus on this aspect of the noble eightfold path—I have also taken contemporary communication courses that are founded in Buddhist concepts, such as Non-Violent Communication. Despite this, right speech is a difficult thing to put into practice, which means that every day presents me with opportunities to hone this skill. This is especially true in the context of my day job, which involves advocating on behalf of elderly individuals in nursing homes.

Here, I would like to share some important lessons that these wise folks have passed on to me…

Speak to be heard 

Just like the majority of health care workers in the US, I am bound by monthly productivity requirements that dictate a lot of the work I do. For example, I have to close a specific number of cases every day, which often comes at the expense of providing quality services. Although this is very problematic, it is unfortunately the reality of the health care system in this country. Thankfully, however, many of the residents I work with are quick to point out when I am mindlessly going through the motions, rather than engaging in a real conversation. As soon as I finish my rapid, 30-second introductory spiel—the organization I work for, the purpose of my visit, how I may be able to help—they tell me “oh honey, you’re going to have to slow down. I didn’t catch a single word you said!”

Every time I am grateful for the gentle reprimand—it gives me an opportunity to slow down, breathe, and to be present with a fellow human being. In other words, it gives me permission to speak so that I can be heard!

Keep your word 

One resident recently told me that, having lived a very full life—which included raising a big family and a career that took her around the world—for the first time ever she felt completely unseen. We sat down together and she described her loneliness to me, and the small things that have been adding to her depression—including people making appointments with her and then cancelling them. “I just don’t understand how people can break their word so easily” she lamented.

After we had agreed on some of the actions we could both take to try and improve her situation, I was ready to take leave and suggested that she call me with a reminder if she doesn’t hear back from me next week. “My days quickly get away from me,” I explained, “so it is fine to touch base and ask for an update.”

She looked me honestly in the eyes and said: “Well, I won’t be doing that,” and it dawned on me—to this woman, who was feeling invisible due to the new circumstances of her life, the only thing that mattered was that someone, anyone, remember her by fulfilling their promise. When the next week came along and I gave her a call just to let her know I was still working on the issue, she was true to her own word—she did not mind one bit that I did not have an outcome for her yet, she was simply grateful that she could trust to be remembered.

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