Words shape worlds – watch your words

by November 9, 2014

“Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

– Laurence J Peter, Canadian Educator

“Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneficial, and not agitating to others, and also in regularly reciting Vedic literature.”

Bhagavad-gita 17.15


Leaders need to inspire, guide and, at times, correct those whom they lead. All this requires good communication. Throughout history, reformers, revolutionaries, pioneers and other leaders have used effective communication as a central tool for actualizing their mission. Indeed, it is no overstatement that words have shaped worlds – and will continue to do so for all time to come.

But effective communication is not easy. Communication doesn’t happen merely by our sending the right message – it happens when our message is rightly understood. Without effective communication skills, leaders will be talking past others. No matter how visionary they may be, others won’t buy into their vision and they will feel as if they are alone, trying to do things right with no one understanding or cooperating.

To avoid such isolation and irritation, leaders need to learn better communication. The Gita vividly exemplifies effective communication, wherein Krishna restored confused Arjuna’s determination through a succinct yet profound conversation.

Communication is both verbal and non-verbal. Verbal communication centers on words, which are indispensable tools for conveying our ideas and feelings to others. These linguistic tools have become increasingly critical in our hi-tech age of phones and emails that often don’t allow the non-verbal forms of communication that nuance, soften, qualify or otherwise complement verbal communication in face-to-face conversations.

Choose words that connect, not alienate

Among the many roles that words can play in conversations, two prominent ones are as windows and as walls. As windows, words give others a clear view of our thoughts and feelings, thereby facilitating understanding. As walls, they block others’ vision of our perspective, thereby breeding misunderstandings.

How can we ensure that our words act as windows, not walls?

By applying the guidelines of the Bhagavad-gita (17.15) for tapping the power of words: speak words that are non-agitating, truthful, pleasing, beneficial and scripturally based.

Let’s focus on the first guideline. When we speak in ways that agitate others, their emotions rise as instinctive reflexes for self-defense. This relegates their rational faculty to the background, making a calm, intelligent discussion nearly impossible. Soon the conversation degenerates into a shouting match or a name-calling competition. Subordinates may not vent their feelings, but they will become emotionally closed to our inputs. Over time, our words will end as bricks in the Chinese wall that builds up between them and us.

To avoid such confrontations, do we have to suppress genuine facts or concerns?

No, because the same Gita verse also urges us to speak truthfully. The recommendation that we speak gently is meant to ensure that the form of our message doesn’t unnecessarily alienate others from its content.

How do we balance sensitiveness and truthfulness?

By calmness and prayerfulness.

Before starting a high-stakes conversation, we can pause to gather our spiritual bearings, remind ourselves that this situation, like all situations, is ultimately Krishna’s arrangement to deepen our wisdom, and pray for his guidance. The resulting inner peace and poise will help us find words that break walls and build windows.

Tap the power of divine sounds

Significantly, the Gita (17.15) refers to speaking properly as an austerity or a discipline. That proper speech is a discipline implies that it doesn’t come automatically – it has to be cultivated consciously and conscientiously.

Lack of verbal discipline can have grave consequences, as most of us have probably witnessed or even experienced. Harsh words can break hearts and wreck relationships. Even when the effects are not so devastating, still, thoughtless words can intensely scar others’ hearts. These scars are often severe and sometimes incurable, especially if the inconsiderate words come from people held in high regard. The words we speak are powerful weapons akin to arrows – arrows that once released from the string of our tongue can’t be withdrawn.

It’s not that we aren’t aware of these dire consequences of inconsiderate words. In fact, it’s often such awareness that makes us resolve to refrain from impulsive harsh speech. Yet, during demanding situations, we frequently find ourselves, to our dismay, lashing out with the very kind of words we had resolved to avoid.

During the heat of the moment how can we check ourselves?

By tapping the power of divine sounds.

The same Gita verse also mentions regular recitation of scriptures as the final discipline of speech. This verbal discipline reveals the secret that can empower us to follow the preceding disciplines. When we regularly recite scriptures and also the holy names of Krishna that are the conclusive gist of scriptures, we become connected with his almighty power. This power enables us to take charge of ourselves when our lower self incites us to speak insensitively.

We can use whatever willpower we presently have to cultivate this empowering discipline of reciting divine sounds – both on a regular basis and especially when we feel provoked.

How can we recite scripture in the corporate settings where we often get provoked? When we are annoyed or angered, it’s best to delay giving feedback because in that frame of mind we will most likely over-criticize and under-help others. We can take brief breaks wherein we can recite divine sounds softly. When that’s not possible, we may take just a few deep breaths wherein we recite or contemplate in the mind. Even such small investments in connecting with divine sounds can give big dividends in terms of calming us and enabling us to choose judicious words. Practicing such discipline steadily will reshape our regular speech so that it strengthens, not weakens, our relationships.

Speak the unpalatable truth palatably

An indispensable aspect of leadership is correcting subordinates when they go wrong. Our criticism can be either constructive or destructive depending on whether it inspires those corrected to improve or impels them to become defensive and reactive. We can’t determine the way people respond to our feedback – that is determined by their volition. Still we often play a bigger role in determining their response than what we might presume. People respond not just to what we speak, but also how and why we speak. They sense whether we actually want to help them or whether we delight in pointing out their faults.

Leaders may well rationalize their insensitivity: “If people can’t take feedback positively, they can just go find another job. I don’t have the time to mollycoddle them – I have projects to complete and deadlines to meet.”

Yes, we do have projects to complete, but ultimately we can’t do those projects without people. And each time we lose a team member, we need to find a new person and spend time, energy and money on training. If people regularly leave because they find working with us too difficult, then the fault may not lie as much in their incompetence as in our harsh speech. For any organization functioning in a competitive world, high staff turnover is a decided disadvantage. Just as we work to fix other weaknesses in our organization, we need to minimize the turnover too. And we can do that by learning to moderate our speech.

Being sensitive is not about mollycoddling people – it is about helping them in their learning or at least not increasing the obstacles in their learning. Pertinently, the Gita (17.15) urges us to speak not just truthfully but also palatably. Translated to our context, this means that we not only tell others their faults when necessary but also do so as palatably as possible.

Palatable speech can do much more than retain people – it can motivate them to higher levels of performance. What most inspires people to perform is not remuneration, but appreciation. When people are paid, they bring their hands to work, maybe even their head if their work is intellectual. But when people feel valued, they bring their heart to work – they offer their entire being to the team. If leaders can learn the art of valuing their team members and communicating that feeling effectively, they are guaranteed to have committed team members.

Faultfinding – a temptation or an obligation?

One of the most important ways we show our regard for others is by the sensitivity with which we offer negative feedback. And such sensitivity will be authentic when it comes not just from verbal expertise alone, but from a heart that cares. Pertinently, the Bhagavad-gita (16.02) recommends that we be averse to faultfinding.

Why averse?

Because faultfinding can be a degrading temptation.

Everyone has a good side and a bad side – and faultfinding often brings forth their bad side much more than their good side. More importantly, it may well bring out our bad side too. When we delight in faultfinding, that delight symptomizes our bad side at work –we are seeing only the faulty side of others and not their good side. Such faultfinding is nothing but a temptation, hence the need to be averse to it.

Of course, in many real-life situations, faultfinding may be not a temptation but an obligation, especially for leaders. The Gita hints at such situations by enjoining not a ban on faultfinding, but an aversion.

Sometimes the faults of others may harm them or those connected with them or the organization at large. So, to help them, we may have to tell them their faults. Or if they are incorrigible, we may have to tell their faults to those who may be otherwise harmed. In content, this may be faultfinding, but in intent, it is education.

Even in such situations, we shouldn’t delight in faultfinding; else we will succumb to our lower side. Subtly but inevitably, our attitude will reflect in our words, gestures and expressions. When others detect or even suspect that we are sadistically motivated, they will neglect or reject our attempts to help them and may even become antagonistic.

That’s why we need to pray to Krishna to give us the right words to express others’ faults sensitively, not judgmentally. And we can also pray that he give them the open-mindedness to understand and the willpower to reform. Praying for others has enormous power – not just in invoking Krishna’s grace on them, but also in removing emotional blockages between them and us. When we pray for others, the positive emotional energy generated by praying changes our perception of them – we see them not as troublemakers who deserve our correction but as fellow human beings who like us are striving to bring out their better selves and who deserve our empathic assistance.

Such a careful and prayerful attitude will ensure that our faultfinding is not counter-productive or unproductive but is productive.

What we speak about others speaks about us

Effective leadership is not just a matter of acquiring a position – it is essentially a matter of earning the trust of those with whom one works through that position. When people trust their leader, they rally together to make things happen.

One of the fastest ways a leader can lose trust is by passing negative comments about others during casual conversations, especially when those people are not present to defend themselves. And one of the surest ways a leader can earn trust is by backing team members, present or absent, when they come under unwarranted fire.

We reveal more about ourselves when we speak about others than when we speak about ourselves. Our words offer listeners glimpses into our heart. When we speak about ourselves, we consciously try to present our best image, concealing our blemishes and biases. However, when we speak about others, often those blemishes and biases unconsciously flow through our speech. From our descriptions of others, perceptive hearers gather more about us than about those whom we describe.

Some people frequently delight in passing biting comments about others, usually behind the back. They imagine taunting others to be ‘cool’, for it earns them cheers among similar people. However, this so-called coolness eventually dries up their listeners’ trust in them, who think, “If they can speak like this about this person, tomorrow, if our relationship becomes strained, they will speak similarly about me too.”

Leaders need to scrupulously avoid behavior that will lead to such inferences.

This again harkens back to the validity and indeed the vitality of the Gita’s injunctions to speak palatably and to minimize faultfinding. When mature leaders speak about others, they judiciously choose words that either appreciate the manifest talents of others or kindle their potential ones. Carefully chosen words remove people’s self-limiting misconceptions and empower them to achieve their potentials. The Gita itself demonstrates vividly the transformative power of words. In around ten thousand words – less than the content of two pages of The Times of India, Krishna transforms Arjuna’s attitude from confusion to determination.

By carefully watching their words, leaders can indeed contribute to shaping worlds, not just of their team, but also of the larger society of which they are significant parts.

(This article is adapted from the author’s upcoming book “Gita Leadership sutras)


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