The Last Word You Ever Speak

I recently heard a story about a woman who survived the holocaust. When she and her younger brother were being transported by train to Auschwitz, she got upset with her brother for not packing all the clothes that he would need. She harshly scolded him, telling him how stupid and foolish he was, and these turned out to be the last words she ever spoke to him.

This woman relates that after the holocaust she has lived her life acting as if the words she speaks to each and every person may be the last words she will ever speak to that person.

When I heard this story I reflected once again on the importance of how we speak to one another. This is about more than effective communication, it’s about kindness. Not speaking harshly to people—ever—seems like a valuable rule to live by.

Another rule I value is, “Don’t say things about people that you would not say directly to that person.”

This reminds me of my sister-in-law who speaks negatively about me in front of her kids—my niece and nephew—and then expects me to have a great relationship with them, and when that doesn’t happen she disappoints herself. We must take responsibility for the seeds we sow when we talk to people—as well as when we talk about people.

How often do you say things about a person that you would not say directly to that person?

I think that this is as important as the lesson from the woman who survived the holocaust. She suggests that our words be able to stand the test of being our final words. I’m suggesting that our words be able to stand the test of being spoken directly to the person we are talking about.

When we say one thing about a person—negative or derisive—and then we say something else to that person, we are contributing to the insanity in the world. We are living incongruously, leaving little land mines behind for others to step on.

Some people think that we shouldn’t ever talk about other people behind their backs, but I disagree with this. I see no problem talking about people as long as we are willing to share with them the representations we make about them.

And, what do we teach people—especially our children—when we say one thing about someone, but then say something different—contradictory—when that same person is present? We teach our children to be duplicitous. And if you are watching the current political season you will see this kind of duplicitous communication has become woven into the fabric of our culture.

One solution that helps people be congruent—the opposite of duplicitous—is learning to use Perception Language. Why? Perception Language makes it completely clear that we are never telling you about another person, we are only telling you about our perception of the other person. Also, it’s a way of using language that teaches us that everything is temporary, even our judgments. When we use language in this way we are far less likely to label other people.

Instead, we talk about our perceptions of people as being in motion, ever changing and evolving. Do you see the differences?

1) We aren’t talking about a person, we’re talking about our perceptions of a person, and

2) We recognize that people—and our perceptions of people—aren’t static, but are ever changing.

I experience this way of talking as much more respectful, and as giving me the comfort and freedom to express directly to people whatever it is that I might say about them behind their backs.

If you are interested in effective communication, which I believe includes being kind and respectful, consider practicing these two simple rules:

1) Act as if the words you speak may be the last words you speak.

2) Make sure whatever you say about someone is something you are willing to say directly to that person.

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One Response to The Last Word You Ever Speak

  1. Bruce Taylor November 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    Not being much of a TV watcher, I happen to stumble upon the PBS special on the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor honoring Ellen Degeneres. I was struck by how deeply those comedians and humorists who honored her cared for her — loved her. The reason becomes pretty easy to see when they tell their stories — it is because she simply gives them respect and love and generosity of time and spirit. But, pertinent to the essay from Green Psychology, I was particularly struck by the fact that she apparently ends every show with two words: “Be Kind.”

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