I was reminded of something several months ago. I work one day a week at a Kosher restaurant and most of my coworkers and clientele are of the Orthodox Jewish faith/culture/tradition. I work the coffee station and love both my coworkers and customers. I am meticulous about leaving the coffee station set up for success: overstocked, clean, and prepared for the other barista.
One Sunday morning I came in, took one look at the station and was livid. The fridge was not stocked, necessary items were not where they were supposed to be, and some things had just not gotten done. Our general manager could tell I was irritated and when he asked me about it I complained up and down about how the other barista left me screwed and now I was going to have to spend my morning playing catch up.
The manager looked at me very compassionately and gently and told me about a Hebrew phrase in their tradition, “Dan l’kaf zechut,” which means to judge others favorably (to put it more simply, give others the benefit of the doubt). He then informed me that the previous day, the barista had been out sick and our wonderful pizza artist (and a dear friend) had to close down the café quickly to get home before Shabbos (what most recognize as the Sabbath), which meant he needed to be home before the sun went down and thus was unable to complete some things.
I made a point after that to spend the day mindfully, compassionately, and assuming the absolute best about people. You see, I had assumed that the barista left me screwed. I had thought that the managers just let it happen. I was angry that I made a point to leave the café clean and prepped and assumed that nobody else cared enough to do it for my shift. I was wrong. This is what happens when we assume things.
If you want to improve your relationships– both with yourself and others – read on my friends.
What is Right Speech?
Zen Buddhism has five mindfulness trainings, the fourth training of which I am enamored by: “Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord” (Hanh, 2002). Jewish and Christian traditions value the wisdom of Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.” In Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate it From Your Life and Transform Your Soul (2002), authors Palatnik and Burg implore you to consider your use of words: “Have we done something significant with this precious gift? Or have we used it to destroy, malign, denigrate, and separate people from another?”
Mind Your Mouth
How do you talk to and with others? Your friends? Your spouse? Are you somebody whose friends confide in you because they know you won’t spread their news around? Are you kind toward your spouse or does anger spew hot lava like a volcano from your mouth? Harsh wording, I know, but we ALL have been guilty of abusing the gift of speech at one or two (thousand) times. It’s part of being human. But we can improve. In Gossip, Palatnik and Burg recommend not listening to gossip but also stopping gossip in its tracks. You can do this by redirecting the conversation subtly or simply telling another person, “Hey I’d rather not speak badly of others.” Not only will you feel good about yourself, but you will become known as somebody trustworthy, and this will invite improvement in your relationships and even help to create new ones!
Take a Time Out
When in a heated conversation with your spouse, for example, practice taking three deep breaths and carefully consider what you want to say next. The time it takes to breathe will not only help you speak calmly, but may save you from saying something destructive. Once something has been said, it can’t be taken back. And words can hurt. While it may be forgiven, the ears can never un-hear what the tongue has uttered.
What’s Good for the Goose…
Right speech applies to you personally as well. How do you speak of yourself? “I’m stupid.” “I’m ugly.” “I never do anything right.” “I’m too fat.” “I’ll never succeed at anything.” If you tell yourself these things, you will believe them, and that takes YEARS to undo. What if you instead thought about the things you are good at and like about yourself? Think of areas in your life you where you do succeed and are confident in. What about physically? If you are someone who struggles with your body image or self-esteem, can you take a moment to find something you appreciate about yourself? Maybe you love your hair, or enjoy your eye color, or have some uniqueness about you that you forgot you always liked.
When you speak kindly about yourself your confidence improves and your mood does. People will notice and want to be around you more. I challenge you to this: For one entire week, do not engage in gossip. Stop it before it starts. Focus on speaking positively about people, yourself included. Check in with yourself at the end of the week and evaluate how you feel.
Assume the Best and Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt
Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book (1997), says, “The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth.” Refer back to my story about the restaurant. What actually happened was nowhere NEAR what I assumed when I began my shift. In a five minute period I allowed myself to become angry at a coworker, allowed my stress level to go up, and caused my day to begin negatively. What if I had simply walked in and asked the manager why stuff was left out? He would have told me and I would have been fine and carried out my day.
We need to give others the benefit of the doubt until we learn otherwise. Once we learn otherwise, if our original negative assumption turns out to be true, then that is a good opportunity to practice compassion. (Of course, that’s a blog topic for another time.) Part of giving the benefit of the doubt is not telling your spouse, friend, or coworker, “you should have known.” What a painful statement! I am not saying it never rings true – there are times people should have known – but there are better ways to convey that to them that will not cause them to become hurt and defensive and may save you from feeling guilty later.
I challenge you to this: Next time you find yourself angry in a situation, take a moment and consider all the possibilities that could have occurred. If other people were involved, take some time to breathe deeply and ask them kindly and directly what happened. The answer may surprise you, and you will preserve the relationship by judging the other people favorably.
Treat speech as a precious gift. Use it to encourage and build up others. Judge people favorably, giving the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.
- By Annen Weber