How do I know what to say?

A pattern that I've had for a really long time has been to ruminate over and second guess the things that I've said to others. Like, "I should have said this instead!" or "Now they're going to think that I'm X because I said that wrong." This pattern is still present in my life, but far less than it used to be, and when it does happen, my response towards myself is far less harsh than it used to be as well. Acting in a way that I am able to live with both in the moment and afterwards is something that is important for me—doing this allows me to live with fewer regrets. 

As I've started working(/grown older?), I feel that many of my perspectives have become more pragmatic (as opposed to theoretical or idealistic). The perspective that I want to write about in this blog post is the framework that I use to decide what to say.

Honesty and kindness are two qualities that are really important to me, and that I identify with. It may be easy to imagine a framework in which I should try my best to say the thing that is most honest, or the thing that is the most kind. This is the deontological approach. The second approach, the consequentialist approach, is to try to say the thing that will result in the best outcome. In this approach, I might judge a possibility based off of how much suffering vs. how much happiness I believe it will create in this world. 

The problem with both of these frameworks is that practicing them—doing what is most honest/kind and knowing what leads to the most good—is very difficult. For the deontological approach, there are many calculations that I need to do, as a consequence of the fact that we live constrained lives. This then becomes a question of prioritization: do I try to give the most honest answer to the question of how I'm doing even when it's asked before a virtual work meeting? You could imagine me adding additional rules for this (i.e., it's ok to be less honest at work), but these types of constraints are always present, in the form of time and limitations of speech. For this reason, the deontological approach seems like an impractical slippery slope. Furthermore, there is also the challenge of knowing what is the most honest or kind thing to say, and it seems like those two may sometimes even conflict.

To address the consequentialist approach—I think my ability to gauge the consequences of my speech is just not good. I bias heavily towards the immediate consequences, whereas I believe that, especially for sensitive subjects, the long-term consequences of something I say will often be of greater magnitude. I don't want to cause someone to suffer, but saying something that does may somehow really serve them going forward (and the inverse of this statement is also true). How can I know when that is the case? And if I somehow get the chance to update that that was the case, it might be 20 years down the line. I also am often just considering my words' effect on the recipient, rather than on the whole world, or even on myself! This approach is so difficult for me. Taking this approach, it often seems in retrospect that if I just had a better model, then I could have said something better, which leads to "studying for the test"-type situations where I try to say the "right thing" and regret it later because it seems like I could have known to say something better. This doesn't feel good.

The framework that I currently believe in, and am working to try to embody more fully, is to say what is alive. I learned about this principle from circling and working with Kai. What it means to me is to try to honor my truth in each moment. This is different from trying to say what is the most epistemically true in each moment; for instance, what is most alive for me might be to not say anything. My experience practicing this has demonstrated to me that actually living this way is attainable—I have a felt sense of when I am doing what is alive and when I am not that I can optimize on—and allows me to live more peacefully with my actions and their consequences, especially if they are uncomfortable. 

While brainstorming about this post, I realized that I have lived updates around doing what is alive from improv. In my experience, the funniest moments in a set are the ones that are the most spontaneous and genuine. How do I react to this situation in the way that is most fun for me? I have found that trying to find the funniest thing to say (or even planning something funny to say) actually leads to less fun and funny outcomes.


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