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Cleaning up your Conversations - Linguistics and Yoga

Aktualisiert: 27. Jan. 2021

I first heard about Paul Grice during my first term at university, in a lecture called "Introduction to English Linguistics 1." Grice's four maxims of conversation were one of the few things I retained from that course, and when combined with yogic philosophy, they gain an even deeper meaning.

Grice observed that in order to achieve effective conversation, all participants must adhere to four maxims, sometimes also summarized as the cooperative principle:

  1. The Maxim of Quality

  2. The Maxim of Quantity

  3. The Maxim of Relevance

  4. The Maxim of Manner

These maxims are powerful beyond telling you how to have the perfect job interview because they can be connected to the Yamas and Niyamas, the yogic "restraints and observances" that teach us how to live in harmony with ourselves and others. Let's look at how we can merge linguistics with yogic philosophy to bring harmony into our conversations.


Maxim 1: Quality

It's easy to understand that we can't expect conversations to run smoothly and end with satisfactory results for all parties if they are based on lies. Grice has a fancy name for lies, he calls them "unsupported claims." But really, the maxim of quality is about more than not lying, it also requires you to refrain from violent speech and to actively speak the truth.

Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word for Nonviolence, the very first Yama and foundation of yogic philosophy. Besides nonviolence towards the self and others, Ahimsa also includes the proactive practice of compassion and kindness. Instead of merely not lying, can you say something kind? Can you let your words express compassion?

When we feel hurried, afraid, powerless, out of balance, frustrated with ourselves, we may find ourselves snapping at our loved ones and taking our feelings out on them. Such violence in speech stems from fear: You are most likely to become verbally violent when you feel threatened in some way - when your partner breaks up with you, when someone you respect gives you a roasting, when you get told off in front of others, when someone insults you or someone you love. Now, fear is a tricky thing: A healthy dose of innate fear keeps you alive, but taken too far, it keeps you from living, or in this case, from speaking.

There's a saying that "If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all." That works well for the moment, and it's certainly better than letting violence speak, but it's not enough. When you feel an urge to insult, to snap, to make an arrogant comment or a volatile remark, catch yourself and find the perceived threat. What is it that made you feel like you needed to defend yourself with a sharp tongue?


Maxim 2: Quantity

"Say neither more nor less than the discourse requires" - in other words, exercise self-discipline in speech. Tapas, which literally translates as "burning impurities," is the Niyama associated with self-discipline. Connected to a conversation situation, Tapas asks you to supply all the information needed to make the communication successful - even if that is uncomfortable for you. Imagine you’re at the doctor’s – you wouldn’t want to hide any potentially vital information from your doctor, so why do we keep information from each other habitually?

Tapas of speech also teaches us not to share more than is appropriate in the specific situation. It can be tempting to overshare, for example as a way of testing the loyalty in a relationship, or simply to gain attention, but it will almost certainly backfire into rejection. There is no short-cut to everlasting friendships and relationships, but talking and listening to each other allow us to forge strong bonds.

Self-discipline in communication means that you assume responsibility for creating balanced conversations built on mutual respect, where there is no venting or dumping of emotional baggage.


Maxim 3: Relevance

The Niyama at work here is Svadhyaya, or self-study. Ask yourself – and be honest – is your contribution relevant, not only to yourself, but to everyone else involved in the conversation? Are you helping to solve the problem or are you inhibiting a productive flow of conversation by dragging on about the problem?

Here, it can be helpful to evaluate conversations afterwards:

  • How long did it take?

  • Was there a productive outcome?

  • How do you feel - motivated? Inspired? Drained? Frustrated?

  • What was your part in the conversation?

  • Are you satisfied with your contribution?

In her brilliant book The Yamas & Niyamas, Deborah Adele says there are "as many worlds as there are people." When you enter a conversation, know which world you are coming from, and also know, or find out, which world the other party comes from. The bigger the distance between your worlds, the more challenging a conversation can be. This is where we again need the first maxim and the principle of ahimsa, because kindness and compassion are universal languages that can bridge even the widest gaps.


Maxim 4: Manner

"Be precise and orderly; avoid ambiguity and obscurity." Yogic philosophy has a beautiful name for this principle of purity: Saucha. With regards to conversation, saucha requires us to speak with integrity, leaving no gap between intent and word, and later on leaving no gap between word and action. Saucha asks you to keep your promises and to say No when you mean No. In order to purify your speech, you need to be able to listen attentively and react to each utterance with clarity and confidence.

This can also mean that you have to decipher another person's subtext - the actual meaning that they might be sugarcoating with words - while working to eliminate your own. In order to speak in a pure manner, you need to think before you speak.

Cleaning up your conversations is no easy feat, but even the smallest improvements can help you level up your interactions in a time when they are particularly precious.

As always, thank you so much for reading,

Elisabeth Xx

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