Talking 101: True, Kind, Necessary, Beneficial.

On average, people resolve misunderstandings in communication once every 90 seconds….Without such a system, our communication would fail constantly,” says Mark Dingemanse, first author of the study.*

Some would say their communications fail constantly anyway. Okay, maybe not constantly but more than they’d like. So what can we do? First rule of Talking: True, Kind, Necessary, Beneficial. This from the ancient Hindu text, the Baghavad Gita – “Austerity of Speech.” All we need to know. All we need to do. Before we speak, we think…is it True, Kind, Necessary, Beneficial, and if it’s not we just don’t. We just don’t talk. Now what makes that so hard? Whenever I give a workshop and introduce this concept of right speech, people start scribbling frantically on their notepads as if they just heard something really important that they never heard before. It just happened the other day with an executive coaching client of mine.** And they’re right; it is important. So what’s the point of all the garbage that comes out of our mouths? Well…actually there is a point to some of our drivel but first let’s look at how we got started talking at all.

In Evolution and Human Behavior, John Cartwright tells us that the first talker could have been Homo habilis, 2 million years ago or Homo erectus, 1 million years ago. You may also click here for no less than 200 references on the origins of language. But here is what matters for our purposes. To be sure, talking is a social plus, and one that has helped us to survive and to thrive all along, likely for millions of years. How else would we suppose that our ancestors could negotiate who gets to eat how much and what cut of the meat from the hunt? How else would they have been able to make deals, detect cheaters, alert each other to danger, and the like. Well why couldn’t they just do it with the wave of a hand or a point of the finger, “Food over here…ferocious beast over there”? Because it didn’t work in the dark for one thing and, even if it was light out, then we had to be looking at each other all the time, just in case someone decided to ‘say’ something, instead of either resting our eyes or using them to scan outward for food, danger, or sex opportunities. Listen to this from Schlain’s The Alphabet Versus The Goddess:

“…evolution came up with the economical idea of using the human tongue for communication. While virtually every other muscle group in the body engaged in a vital activity fairly regularly, the tongue just sort of lay in the mouth between meals, doing little except help with swallowing saliva. The brain, like a patient Olympics coach, taught the tongue to perform a wide range of acrobatic gymnastic…the langue (tongue) in language became the indispensable shaper of speech.”

The tongue just sort of lay there…wonderful! So by putting the tongue to work, hands could do all kinds of great things, like carrying babies, using tools… But the tongue’s sounds (words) can be misunderstood, so researchers have found universal mechanisms to repair these otherwise faulty communications that can make a huge difference in our lives. The 3 universal strategies* from 12 different languages include:

  1. a “huh” to call for a repetition of what was said.
  2. a call for more detail about certain information, such as “who” or “where.”
  3. a bid for confirmation when the listener repeats what was said.

The authors tell us that humans try to be kind by using an easier strategy for the speaker than the open ended “huh” one, when they can. What’s also really interesting here is that humans are the only species known to interrupt to repair. I happen to know people who freak when they are interrupted.** Little do they know what a tribute to the importance of what they are saying, what an act of kindness, and how completely human and normal interrupting can actually be. Turn-taking, as in listening and preparing one’s response at the same time, is something that comes out in the literature much better than we tend to think it is, for its efficiency and effectiveness in getting the communication job done.

But not all speech is as overtly purposeful as that. Some of it is just for… you know…bonding. Not to minimize bonding, we’d be nowhere as a species without bonding, but here’s where the drivel comes in.

Talking is a social lubricant, not necessarily done to convey information, but to establish familiarity…. these vocalizations are equivalent to the chitchat that we do. People think that conversations are like exchanging mini-lectures full of information. But most of the time we have conversations and forget them when we’re done because they’re performing a purely social function.”

That’s a relief in a way, isn’t it? Trouble is that the chitchat can be mindless and when we are talking just to talk it doesn’t always come out right. In fact, studies have shown American civility to be on the decline. As only one example, 25% of Americans reported using the f-word every day, up 10 points over the last 10 years. True, kind, necessary, beneficial. Maybe true, but has to be all 4. And even where talking may be civil, true, and kind, it may not be necessary and beneficial at all.

For some people, it goes something like this: I Talk Therefore I am. Why not just: I Breathe Therefore I Am. If all that is needed is reassurance that one exists, breathing should be enough. Breathing is true, kind, beneficial, and necessary. But breathing doesn’t tell us that we are really amazing and that the whole rest of the world knows it. Anyone can breathe. But impressing the world, just by making these amazing words come out of the mouth, well now we’re talking. Only no one is listening, more than likely not even the talker, when the talking has taken on a life of its own with no redeeming social value to it. So we think before we talk: Is it True, Kind, Necessary, and Beneficial? And, if it’s not we can repair the words before we let them out or, if there really is no point, for the benefit of all, let’s just breathe. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.

For help with this or something else, Contact Me at:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

Phone:   202-617-0821

* Universal patterns for the “repair” of human communication discovered. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, September 16, 2015 https://www.mpg.de/9405856/universal-repair-mechanisms-language

** Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.

 

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