Right Speech: Speaking the Truth

There is a Zen story about two groups of monks arguing over a cat. The teacher, in response to the conflict, picks up the cat in one hand and a knife in the other. He says to the group of monks, “Say something of the truth of Zen, or I will cut the cat in half.” No one said anything, and the cat was killed. (Remember, this is a story — I’ve always imagined that the teacher pretended to kill the cat.) Later, the teacher was describing this event to one of his most revered students. Upon hearing what had happened, this student, without saying a word, took off his sandals, put them on his head, and left the room. The teacher said, “If only you had been there, the cat would have been saved.”

What did this student do to save the cat? What does this story have to do with business and our work lives?

I remember being in a staff meeting in which I was feeling uncomfortable. We were discussing our product-development strategy for the next six months. I felt that there were conflicts and unresolved issues among my managers and staff. We were not all in agreement and were not all working together. My attempts at achieving clarity and a unified vision did not seem to be working as well as I would have liked. In the midst of this meeting, I felt an opening, a chance to guide the discussion and at the same time to transform our strategies. Being preoccupied with trying to say the right thing, I hesitated. I was concerned about making a mistake. The discussion progressed. The time no longer seemed right to make my point. I had missed my chance to say something that could make a difference. I had “killed the cat.”

In the story above, the student would have saved the cat by fully meeting the teacher. He didn’t hesitate. He responded to another person in a way that was direct and authentic. He wasn’t trying to look good, wasn’t trying to think of a clever or even a clear answer. He acted. He wasn’t caught by his past and wasn’t thrown off center by his teacher. He responded, without using words.

The definition of right speech is to speak truthfully, being loyal to the truth when speaking with others, not creating harm or speaking cruelly, not exaggerating or embellishing, and speaking in a way that relieves suffering and brings people back to themselves.

Being Loyal to the Truth

Saying what you know to be true and not saying what is not true is a clear and powerful practice — and much more difficult than you might imagine. When we speak truthfully we become worthy of trust, and the people around us feel cared for and safe. Sometimes just telling the truth can be very refreshing, even though it can also be painful.

Not Creating Harm

Our words have the power to cause tremendous harm or tremendous healing. I’ve seen much pain caused in the work environment by people not being careful with speech and underestimating the power of words. Even when we have no intention to cause harm, our words may affect our colleagues in ways that are completely outside our own experience or expectations. I have noticed, as a manager and especially as “the boss,” that my words, particularly how I express my displeasure, can have a tremendous impact. I have learned the importance of giving great care to where, when, and how I express my insights regarding performance or behaviors that need to be changed or improved.

Next: Not Exaggerating, Relieving Suffering, and Deep Listening

Not Exaggerating

So often in business, people describe situations and outcomes in ways that make themselves or their projects appear more successful or more certain then they really are. I have also noticed that people sometimes make tasks appear more difficult and complicated then they actually are as a way to protect themselves from criticism or from being given additional work. The word spin, meaning to put a positive — or negative — light on a situation, has recently been in vogue,. Spin is just a euphemism for exaggeration.

Relieving Suffering

Our speech has the potential to provide comfort, positive challenge, and transformation in our work environment. By speaking clearly and directly from our hearts, we can touch the people around us and turn suffering into acceptance and joy. Just listening fully to others is often enough to relieve suffering. This requires stopping and just being with another person, in whatever state they are in.

I was recently surprised to discover that aspects of my management style and speech were habits I had learned as a child. When I was very young I sensed the tension and stress in my household. There was very little talk in my household about feelings, difficulties, or needs. I developed a strategy of dealing with difficult situations by ignoring them or distancing myself from them. Though this strategy may have worked for me as a child, it could have proved disastrous for me as the CEO of a small, quickly growing company. I needed to learn and grow.

Deep Listening

The foundation of right speech is deep listening. Our speech does not occur in a vacuum — it must include our awareness of others. When people don’t feel heard they become isolated and unhappy. Their work suffers, and the work of everyone around them suffers as well. Right speech means being present and meeting each person and each situation directly.

Notice how you speak to others and how others speak to you. Just notice. Notice how your speech varies with whomever you are speaking — someone whom you report to, who reports to you, a family member. Try speaking directly and openly. Take risks with your words by speaking openly from your heart. Notice how your words touch and affect people. Experiment with beginning your sentences with the words “I want,” “I need,” and ” feel.” Make statements instead of asking questions. Use your speech to be clear, open, direct, and vulnerable.

What does “Right Speech” mean to you and your life?

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Emma S.
Emma S.2 years ago

Thank you for this, even though I've come to it rather late! It's a really good lesson, and I shall try to avoid having any cat deaths on my conscience, as I rather like cats. I work in theatre, and the temptation to gossip is sometimes almost overwhelming - perhaps that's the first area I should look at...

Aurora C.
Aurora C.5 years ago

I love this story. It inspires me to ponder the fact that oftentimes expression of simple truth takes more courage than elaborate fabrication or second guessing. Perhaps this is because it serves a deeper aspect of Self. It is an emissary of heart knowing. We get so caught up in "how should I respond here?". Perhaps that is being a follower, for it is observing how others act in order to fall into accord with them. Speaking one's truth is standing in one's own self authority. That is something we are each one assigned to achieve.

Ana Sonata
Ana S.5 years ago


Jan Carlo Tuclaud

Trite but true: the Truth shall set you free!

Miroslav B.
Miroslav B.5 years ago

If I were the monk I'd try confusing the cat

Sanja T.
Sanja T.5 years ago


Catherine G.
Past Member 5 years ago

Telling the truth does not necessarily make someone feel better but some truths really need to be said. Period.

Kathryn Fruish
Kathryn Fruish5 years ago

I am completly mad! I've heard little wise storied like this before and was interested to read this...but I'm left confused??? Yes speak the truth I know about that, but didn't anyone say 'don't kill the cat' ... What about the putting the sandals on the head?? and the cat would have been saved, killing the cat in a meeting where there were conflicts of opinion...I feel without an explanation about this. Sorry.

Jeanie Johnson
Jeanie Johnson5 years ago

Very wise. Thank you. I need to hear these words and re-member them each day.

Tasia F.
Elizabeth L.5 years ago

wise words.