Right Speaking and Right Listening in Waldorf School Communities by Gary Lamb June 05 2024

Right Speaking and Right Listening in Waldorf School Communities

Gary Lamb, Director, Hawthorne Valley Center for Social Research

Spiritual Beings live and are active in human speech, and when one formulates words, elemental beings press into them. On the wings of words spiritual beings fly through the space where human beings are conversing with one another. This is why it is so important that we . . . do not simply let uncontrolled feelings get the better of us when we speak.
- Rudolf Steiner, 12/28/1914

This brief commentary is based on several annotations and quotations related to right speaking and right listening found in my recently published book, On the Wings of Words: Conversations and Human Relations – Inner Aspects of the Fundamental Social Law and the Threefold Social Organism

Spoken words take on many roles and occur in many situations within a Waldorf school. They take place in exchanges and meetings between and among the adult members of the school community including, but not limited to, teachers, staff, board members, and parents. Additionally, there are the daily lessons of instruction given by the teachers, and the reception and responses of the students. Also important are the freely formed conversations between and among students.

Evaluating how people speak and listen to one another has the potential to be a revealing and important social assessment of a school community, whether it be the quality of board or faculty meetings or the tenor of spontaneous parking lot conversations. Such conversations can be lofty and inspired or be lacking in dignity and respect.

Annotations and Selected Passages from “On the Wings of Words”

Three important social aspects related to right speaking are truthfulness, overcoming the “the power to wound,” and not letting “uncontrolled feelings get the better of us,” as mentioned in the above quotation.

Regarding truthfulness, Rudolf Steiner relates the following: “No persons should make a statement or impart anything to another person until they have exhausted every means to ascertain the truth of their assertions; and it is only when they recognize this obligation that they can perceive truth as a moral impulse.” [1] The imperative of truthfulness applies equally to formal and informal conversations in a school community.

The power to wound is a reference to a passage from Light on the Path by Mabel Collins (1888) which is as follows: “Before the voice can speak in the presence of the [spiritual] Masters, it must have lost the power to wound.” [2]  Thus, we should not speak in any way that causes undue pain or suffering in another person.

The necessity of keeping our feelings under control when speaking appears in the cited quotation at the beginning of this article. The main reason being that how we speak to one another in a conversation will determine the type of spiritual beings that are attracted to the words that are spoken. Depending on the conversation, these can range from elemental beings, decadent and/or lofty, right up to the being of Christ.

Now we come to the importance of appropriate listening with tolerance and respect.

In order to hear opinions of others completely, we must not only hear their thoughts but also perceive the feelings that are behind the thoughts. This is how to listen not just with the head but with one’s whole being, with one’s soul. This can only happen if we listen with complete tolerance of and respect for the opinions of others, even those that we  completely oppose.[3]

Developing the capacity of listening through one’s whole being with tolerance and respect for the thoughts of others requires systematic practice at times and occasions deliberately chosen by those who are working on themselves inwardly for the purpose of self-development. All feelings of superiority, impatience, and irritability that arise in us when someone is sharing their thoughts and feelings in one’s presence must be cast aside.[4]

Through systematically practicing the above exercise and developing the capacity to listen without harmful criticism, one can develop the ability to perceive the soul and spirit of others through the words that they convey in conversation. The spoken word then becomes a rarified element through which such perceptions are inwardly experienced.[5]  

Thus, the development of right speaking and right listening can be an important foundation for aspiring and well-established Waldorf schools alike.

Gary Lamb is the Director of the Hawthorne Valley Center for Social Research located in Harlemville, NY. He served as a high school economics teacher, development director, and admissions coordinator at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School. In addition, he has written books on Waldorf Education, associative economics, and the threefold social organism distributed by Waldorf Publications and SteinerBooks. Gary can be reached at glamb@thecenterforsocialresarch.org or 518-672-4465, ext. 223.
[1] Wings, p. 37. Lect. 5/30/1912.
[2] This quotation does not appear in the current edition of On the Wings of Words.
[3] Wings, pp.12,13, annotation.
[4] Wings, pp.14-15, annotation.
[5] Wings, p.15, annotation.