Speaking Up For Change

November 7th, 2011

A man joins a religious order and takes a vow of silence. According to the rules of the monastery, he is allowed to speak two words per year.

After the first year the head Monk calls him in for a meeting and asks for his two words.

He replies … “Bed hard.”

After his second year the head Monk asks him again for his two words for the year.

He replies … “Food stinks.”

After the third year the head Monk asks him his two words for the year.

He replies … “I quit.”

The Head Monk says … “Thank goodness. You’ve done nothing but complain from the minute you arrived here!”

Like the character in the story, you have limited words to speak in your lifetime. Are you going to use them to complain or to spread positive energy? You have a finite number of breaths to take and limited time and energy. To quote Mary Oliver, “Tell me- what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Do you want to be remembered as someone who saw fault in everything or as someone who looked for opportunities to encourage and build up?

It’s sometimes a challenge to stay positive, especially at a time when you see so much inequity and suffering in the world. Do you speak up and call people and systems to account for their dysfunction, or do you bite your tongue on the basis that everything happens as it needs to happen, and in good time?

Even a few words of criticism can be deafening like a slow drip from a clogged gutter. The sound of silence can also be deafening when you feel that you have lost your own voice and no one around you is speaking up. As Simon and Garfunkel sang many years ago, “Silence like a cancer grows.”

One of the most enduring, striking images to come out of the OWS movement is the man with the dollar bill taped over his mouth. The American dream where everyone has equal access to resources has turned into a nightmare where you scream for help because it’s all gone so horribly wrong but no sound comes out of your mouth. You feel silenced by a system that offers tax breaks for millionaires, enables corporate greed and turns the gap between rich and poor into a full scale chasm.

As MLK said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

This is most certainly a time to speak up, confidently and clearly. Speak up because things are upside down and your carefully chosen words could help to put them right way up for you and others. Speak up, but do it mindfully, aware that your words have the power of both life AND destruction. Speaking up is a double edged sword, and the OWS movement does well to remember both the power of speaking up and the responsibility. The words you use when you speak are just as important as the choice to speak up. Choose words that come from your core values, and words that empower others to live their highest values. Speak your mind, and mind your speech. (read on for tips on how to speak up non defensively)

There is a way of speaking up that gets beyond moaning and complaining. Two authors have helped me when it comes to healthy communication, Marshall Rosenberg and Sharon Ellison. Marshall Rosenberg writes about non violent communication, by which he means communication that comes from a compassionate heart. He points to four steps in expressing yourself non violently-

  1. Observing- State what you observe, from your own perspective, and without judgment.
  2. Feeling- Explain how what you observe makes you feel without blame.
  3. Needs- Explain what is at stake for you and others you care about.
  4. Request- Ask for specific, concrete, changes.

Sharon Ellison’s book is called Taking the War Out of Our Words. She identifies some war-like communication traps.

Surrender-betrayal: Where you give in and take responsibility for a situation that you are not directly responsible for. You betray yourself.

Surrender-sabotage: Passive aggression is a classic example of sabotaging your own hopes and needs as well as confusing people around you.

Withdrawal-Escape: You avoid, or simply leave a conflict situation without saying anything.

Withdrawal-Entrap: You avoid in a way that forces someone else to do or say something inappropriate.

Attack-Justify: You rationalize and make excuses for what has happened.

Attack-Blame: You don’t hold back and use your speech to attack and judge.

I am fascinated by the signs I’ve seen at OWS rallies. I saw one that says, “Dear capitalism, it’s not you, it’s us. Just kidding, it’s you.” Cute, but it includes no personal responsibility.

Some of the signs express healthier values than others. Too many of them have their own war-like, passive- aggressive and self defeating language. Signs about eating bankers or telling Wall Street execs to jump out of their ivory towers are NOT helpful

My favorite sign is a simple statement of reality- “Hey Barack, I’m baroke.” The most non-defensive sign I’ve seen says, “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”

Speak up without becoming war-like, without becoming a victim, without giving your power away and without betraying your highest values of optimism and positive transformation.

The basis for speaking up for change in a healthy way is acceptance. You have to accept what is, without blame or judgment, before you can heal yourself or any system. This doesn’t mean you agree with what is, or like what is, or resign yourself passively to what is. You accept it from the perspective that you mark your starting point. X marks the spot, and you’re it. Ground yourself, beyond blame and judgment. If you start out accepting that things are the way they are, and discern that you are the right person to change them and now is the right time to speak out, then you can do so without wasting energy on blame. On the other hand, if you spend your energy wishing things aren’t the way they are, your speech and actions are likely to be full of rage rather than compassion.

In the end, there is no absolute line that separates acceptance and action, analysis and blame, protest and pity. It’s about discernment in every case. You have to follow your intuition which knows when to speak up, how to express your values and most importantly why you’re speaking up.

The next piece in this series is on optimism and change. The last word here goes to Thich Nhat Hanh who offers this awesome statement about truthful and loving speech-

Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, I am committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. I am determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain nor criticise or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will do my best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten my safety.

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  1. Bill F. says:

    Good thoughts here. Well worth reading and contemplating. Well done.

  2. Found this just at the right moment. Searching for the voice to call the Land Army. Thank you. Our paths are sure to cross again.

  3. Meg Robinson says:

    So enjoying your website, and finding the post very helpful and illuminating.  Love how you use storytelling to make points.
    Thank you. 

  4. lucinda says:

    Lovely article! It’s a good reminder of the power of words, and our responsibilities when using them. Thanks for writing it!

  5. Meagan Frank says:

    This is fantastic stuff! Relationships fuel change and communication determines relationship. I love finding the succinct reminders about how I want to live my life! Thank you…MMF

  6. Jenny says:

    This is very helpful.  I tend to shy away from confrontation, even when I really want to address a situation in a positive, non war-like manner.  For months I’ve wanted to speak up for myself and for others like me who are afraid of free ranging dogs on the public hiking trails.  It’s an unpredictable situation.  I’ve been attacked before, and so has my dog.  There are leash laws, and some people do respect them.  Many do not.  I’ve wanted to address those who do not honor or respect our rights to walk without major disruption or potential harm. It grinds me that people behave as if they are above the law and walk on by with a smile as if they are entitled to the entire space; they forget that it is something we all share.  Just this evening, I thought I might say, “I’m sorry if you cannot afford a leash for your dog, but the law requires one for all pets on these trails.”  I’m not sure if that’s war like or not.  Once my husband had to kick a dog to get it to stop attacking ours.  So I’m going to keep thinking of a good solution.  

  7. Serene Sharon says:

    I loved this post.  I believe words matter ALWAYS.  

  8. Pat Arnold says:

    Some great wisdom and lessons here for the Loud Mouth in the Balcony, who can be brutally honest. I will now be more mindful when I speak my truth.
    Thanks much!

  9. [...] Via Soul Seeds, see entire blogpost with more tips on nonviolent and  by Ian Lawton, Speaking Up For Change. [...]

  10. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    I think, that sometimes you’re reading my mind. This is just what I need really. How I shall feel and think tomorrow is anyone’s guess. I keep advising others to ‘be true to yourself”, yet I’m betraying myself, making me realize I have no backbone, which is demoralizing. My father would be livid with me if he were alive.