Expressing ourselves with clarity and compassion can be really challenging sometimes. There are those times when, fueled by enthusiasm or anger, you spontaneously say something and feel oh-so-awful afterwards. Or those times when you are sitting there wondering to yourself “should I say it or not?” I lived in an ashram for many years where I learned a beautiful and extremely useful teaching from the Vedas called “The Four Gatekeepers of Speech”. It may sound a little daunting but I draw on this teaching constantly in my many and varied interactions with people and I find it a great friend. The “gatekeepers” are like sentinels that provide respect, compassion and safety for others and ourselves in our communications.
The Gatekeepers are four questions that we can ask ourselves before we go ahead and speak. They are:
Is it True?
Is it Necessary?
Is it Time?
Is it Compassionate?
This may seem like a lot of work before you open your mouth but it can become a seamless process that will save you and your friends, colleagues and loved ones a lot of pain, conflict and misunderstanding. We’ll look at these one at a time:
“There are many things true for us but better left unsaid because they will cause unnecessary hurt, confusion, stress or conflict.”
Is it True?
Seems like a simple question, right? However real honesty can be a challenging and vulnerable endeavor. A lot of the time we speak in half-truths or ‘white lies’ to avoid the courage it takes to speak truthfully. While this may be the path of least resistance, when we are not entirely honest it undermines our sense of integrity and, more often than not, people sense it. If you find that you are reluctant to tell the truth it may be better not to say anything at all.
Even if we stand by our perspective as true, and even see it as self evident, we often fail to question our own assumptions. Are we really speaking truth or something we’ve heard through the grapevine? Are we actually relaying truth or simply voicing a belief from an unconscious bias we’ve inherited? Is it truth we are expressing or a perspective based on our own personal value system? We like to be empowered by speaking “my truth” which is great as long as it doesn’t claim privilege over the truth of another. We can stay open and respectful of other perspectives. We’ll explore this more in part two of this series.”There are many things true for us but better left unsaid because they will cause unnecessary hurt, confusion, stress or conflict.”
Is it necessary?
While we may stand by the truth of what we perceive, the next question to ask is whether it is necessary to share it. There are many things true for us but better left unsaid because they will cause unnecessary hurt, confusion, stress or conflict. It may be true that your partner looks weary and lackluster this morning but telling them so is unlikely to be helpful to them in approaching their day. It may be true that your colleague is overwhelmed at the moment but telling them so will probably only exacerbate the situation. What is your motivation for sharing your perspective and will it serve your heart connected values?
Is it time?
If it is true and necessary to convey something then timing is the next place of discernment. You may feel compelled to spontaneously relay this information, express your view or get this issue ‘off your chest’ right now but is it the time and place? Is the other person in a receptive enough state or are they stressed or otherwise absorbed? Is it the right time of day for a discussion? Is this the appropriate environment in which to share your information or perspective? Airing your concerns about unpaid bills or unwashed dishes right before going to bed with your partner will likely lead to resistance and the stress of lost sleep. Announcing your promotion when your friend has just shared their health concerns is hurtful to them and unsatisfying for you. Sensitivity around the timing of what you share is a mark of respect and consideration for others. When in doubt, ask the person if now is a good time to talk.
Is it compassionate?
This is not about always being nice and not saying anything confronting. Some hard truths need to be expressed courageously. Compassion can sometimes look like tough love or speaking truth to power but the effectiveness of our words is contingent upon the skill and emotional presence of our expression. Compassion asks us to take responsibility for our ‘truth’, our own perspective, and maintain respect for the other person and their views. It requires that we stay connected to our heart even if we feel strong emotions. It compels us to find a way to express this truth in a way that the other person can absorb. It asks that we look for what will serve the integrity of our values and of the relationship.
It might seem that this process would take a lot of effort and time but when our agile mind is tethered to the wisdom and compassion of the heart we can flow through this process in the space of a few breaths. Yes, it does require a little practice and the willingness to pause and take a moment or two before forging ahead to speak what is true for us with vulnerability, courage and respect.