How to Speak Properly
Updated: May 2, 2022
A Quick Story: Socrates' Triple Filter Test
Statue of Socrates -- Athens, Greece. Hiroshi Higuchi / Getty Images
One day in ancient Greece, an acquaintance met with the great philosopher Socrates and said, “Do you know what I just heard about your friend?"
“Hold on a minute,” Socrates replied. “Before telling me anything, let’s put it through the triple filter test.”
“Triple filter?” the man asked.
“That’s right,” Socrates continued. “The first filter is truth. Are you absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?"
The man replied, “Well, no… I just heard about it and—”
Socrates interrupted, “Alright, so you don’t even know if it’s true. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my friend something that’s good?”
The man replied, “No, on the contrary—”.
Socrates interrupted again, “So you want to tell me something bad about him, but you’re not certain it’s true. Okay let’s try the final filter, the filter of usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my friend going to be useful for me?”
The man replied, “Not really—”.
Socrates concluded, “Well, if what you want to say is not true, not good, nor useful, then why say it at all?”
How to Speak Properly
Julian Treasure once said,
“The human voice…It’s the most powerful sound in the world, probably. It’s the only one that can start a war or say ‘I love you’.”
Indeed, uncareful speech leads to many problems, while thoughtful speech creates a better world. Yet how many of us have actually learned how to speak? Imagine if Socrates’ Triple Filter Test was taught to all children, how different would our media be, and how different would the world be?
Socrates isn’t the only person to emphasize proper speech. Confucius also has many teachings on proper speech.
Confucius's teachings on proper speech can be found in the book Di Zi Gui: Guide to Happy Life:
Whatever I speak, trustworthiness comes first
When I speak, make sure the volume and speed are comfortable for the listener
When I speak, make eye contact with the listener
Speaking less is better than speaking more
Don’t use flowery language, foul language, or exaggeration
What I do not know for sure, do not say
These principles were taught to children and practiced by adults in ancient China, which is a major factor to their societal peace and harmony.
Aside from Socrates and Confucius, the Buddha also emphasized cultivating proper speech.
anuchit kamsongmueang / Getty Images
In fact, Buddhism has a very similar three-filter test to Socrates:
Is it true?
Is it beneficial for the receiver?
Is it a timely opportunity to speak?
We can see that the key principle here is to be considerate of the listener.
Personally, I have three bad speaking habits:
Rambling: It's no wonder my students get distracted or uninterested when I'm talking. I shouldn't blame them; I need to cultivate my speaking abilities.
Untimely Speech: When it's not a good time to speak to the other person, but I'm worried I'll forget later, I'll still speak, and then the other person gets annoyed and won't even remember what I said.
Untruthful Speech: I often say "I think" because I don't know if something is true, but if I don't know it's true I may as well just not say it. Always saying "I think" makes me lose credibility.
Awareness is the first step to change. I've already improved a lot compared to before, but I still have a long way to go. Hopefully, my reflection might inspire you to cultivate your speaking habits too!
Applying the Teachings
After cultivating my speaking habits, I’ve found my communication abilities and relationships improve significantly. For example, recently my mother was teaching me how to do a chore. She was doing it differently than how I normally do it, and I felt the urge to interrupt her and ask why not do it another way and say the problems I see if she does it her way. But I remembered to speak less and listen more, and that before speaking, I need to have her attention. Since she was focused on demonstrating, I didn’t speak. Later, after her demonstration, I understood why she did it her way. When she asked me if I understood, my instinct was just to say yes. But proper speech should be beneficial for the listener, so I made eye contact and then briefly summarized the process. She was very happy to see I paid attention and was able to explain the process back to her.
Another application of these lessons is in writing. Just as with speech, we should only write what's true, beneficial for others, and in a manner that is suitable for the readers.
By cultivating our speech, we can avoid many unnecessary conflicts and improve our relationships and effectiveness. We are fortunate to receive such wonderful and useful teachings from wise ancestors such as Socrates, Confucius, and the Buddha.
Which points resonated with you? I encourage you to pick three points and use them as your speech filters for a day and see what difference it makes in your life.