The Power of Our Words
Author David Riesman said:
Do you remember when someone's words hurt you? Perhaps they called you "skinny," "stupid," "four eyes," or "ugly." It probably felt like someone slapped you.
How about when someone's words made you feel great, such as "You're wonderful," "That was an excellent job," "I love you."? I'll bet you can remember the exact words and tone from each memory.
Words can comfort when we're feeling sad, inspire us to take action, acknowledge us for a job well done, humiliate us, make us laugh, stimulate our thoughts, educate us, or incite violence.
Words have created fist fights, divorces, murders, and wars. To "exchange words" has always expressed aggression and conflict. However, a high compliment is, "She keeps her word."
Our words are so much more powerful than we realize. We take our words for granted, because we say so many in a day.
How are you using your words? Are you aware of what you say to others? Or do words just fall out of your mouth?
A few years ago I had a deep epiphany. I'd found myself becoming increasingly negative, cynical, and judgmental. This was not great for someone who's supposed to be motivating others! I was wrestling with whether or not my words made any difference to my audiences. I felt like it didn't matter if I showed up for a speech or not.
The turning point came when I repeatedly had trouble dragging myself out of bed on days of I was to deliver a speech. "Drat! Do I have to give another motivational talk?" I knew I was in real trouble.
Something dramatic needed to change immediately. At the recommendation of a mentor, I enrolled in an intensive nine-day personal growth seminar. Over the last 20 years I'd taken many personal and professional development seminars, but this one was more powerful than all the others put together.
I emerged from the program profoundly changed. Hearing my fellow participants share their fears, doubts, and regrets during the seminar, I saw that much of the pain we'd all spoken about in the seminar was created because of words directed at us, or words we'd said to loved ones, and wished we hadn't, or words of love we wish we'd said, but didn't. Have you ever experienced pain because of words said--or unsaid?
I began to examine the impact of words in my life. My insight was a deepened awareness of how powerful our words are. I'd known intellectually most of my life, but I'd never understood it at such a deep emotional level.
You see, much of my life I'd used words to disconnect me from others. Funny, since I'd been a communication major in college, and I've been spreading the gospel of communication for the past 15 years as a professional speaker and author. Yet I saw how clumsy, and often cruel, I'd been with my words. I used words to create a wall around me so others couldn't get close. If they weren't close, they couldn't hurt me.
Have you ever built a wall to keep out pain?
Sticks and Stones
Have you ever believed the children's chant, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me"? I'd thought I believed it. But now I admit how deeply others' words have affected me. And, I see how my sometimes sharp words have affected others.
I created a phrase to help me remember this lesson: words can cut, words can heal. After the nine-day workshop, I was determined to focus on healing words.
I emerged feeling that I had more empathy. I felt like I was oozing with love and compassion. I was now more vulnerable and sensitive to pain--mine and others--than ever in my life. I saw how I'd clumsily caused others pain, often without knowing it. I felt I was now on the right path. I was cured! Or so I thought.
Have you ever thought you were changed, only to be given proof that you weren't?
Two months after the workshop, I had lunch with three close friends. Midway through the meal, one friend told us of a minor indiscretion she had made on e-mail--she'd innocently e-mailed to someone she didn't know from someone else's distribution list.
As the techno-expert at the table, I decided she needed to see her faux pas: "How could you do that? How crass. That's like sending electronic junk mail. You should never send e-mail to anothers' distribution list. This is a violation of cyber etiquette." And on and on. I was stern. I was adament. I was insensitive. She burst into tears.
I'd become so numb to my words' effect on others, I hadn't imagined she'd react this way. In retrospect, I can see how easily I'd hurt others, often without being aware of it.
Here I was, fresh from the most profound personal work I had ever done, supposedly full of love and light, and I was belittling one of my dearest friends. My words were still causing others pain, still cutting when I wanted to be healing. I had so much work left to do in my quest for sensitivity and caring. This oozing with love and compassion was not going to be as easy as I thought.
Even with awareness, putting my new sensitivity into action isn't easy. The concept of "words can cut, words can heal" is easy enough to grasp. Yet it is not so easy to institute every day, in every conversation, especially in times of stress, tension and change.
Because of our busy lives we don't often think through "How might my comment leave the receiver? Feeling respected, or diminished?" Feeling better about himself, or worse?
A while ago one of my clients asked me to work with a supervisor, Deb, whom they wanted to promote. Yet she had some communication habits that kept her unpromoted. One of these habits was the manner in which she communicated policy and process changes to her staff. After a management meeting she would return to her area and tell her staff, "You're not going to believe what those bozos want us to do now." As you would guess, her staff was resistant to the changes.
During my discussion with Deb, she came to understand the power she held. She hadn't seen herself as a leader, so didn't see how her words were undermining management's efforts. She quickly understood, and began to communicate management's decisions--even ones she didn't like--positively.
You may face situations similar to Deb's. In any business, there are changes. There will be many times when you will have to explain these new processes to your associates. You can choose to explain them positively, or you could add your own editorial comments. For your success, the success of your associates, and of the company, I encourage you to think through your words before sharing them.
Manager's Words Have Added Weight
If you manage people, your words have much more weight than you may realize. Another client, Jak, shared with me a recent realization. Although for 30 years he'd worked as a manager, executive, and now CEO, he hadn't really understood the long-lasting impact that his words had on his staff.
He shared that he had became frustrated by all the hubbub generated by a seemingly offhand comment he'd made to one of his staff. He'd thought he had gently teased her about a mistake she'd made. She, however, took his comments to heart, was very upset, and discussed it with dozens of coworkers. She felt he was focusing on her mistakes rather than on what she did well. She was concerned about losing her job.
He told me there was never a question of her losing her job. He saw how deeply his offhanded words had affected her. He became more vigilant about his comments before he opened his mouth, not only with her, but with everyone at his office. He hadn't fully understood how powerful his words were, especially with his staff.
Humor Can Backfire
Jak had been trying to be funny about the mistake. Sometimes we use humor to lighten up a situation, but it backfires.
Are we saying things to our customers or associates that would be better off unsaid? Are we phrasing things as positively as we could?
When I was shopping for disability insurance, a financial planner friend recommended an agent. When I called the agent, he asked if he could send me a proposal rather than making the hour's drive to see me. This was unusual, but I said "Sure."
After I received the proposal, we discussed it over the phone. Having come from the insurance industry, I asked, "Why did you choose to quote these particular companies?"
He responded, "Because they give me the best contract," which meant that he got the highest commission from them.
"Why aren't you quoting some of the large companies known for their disability policies?" I asked.
"Because if biggest were best, Miss America would weigh 300 lbs!"
He said this to a woman with a weight problem! He had no idea he'd been insulting. I bought from someone else.
I'd spent much of my life trying to be funny--at other people's expense. Have you ever done that?
I've teased people about their touchy areas. When they didn't take it well, I accused them of being too sensitive and unable to take a joke. For all my tough bravado, the truth was, I could dish it out, but I couldn't take it. I was more sensitive than I let on. With my new awareness, I realized that I'd been given this lesson ten years earlier, but I didn't know it. It happened when I was a participant in an image seminar.
I was looking for a little brush up on the nuances of dressing for success. I enrolled in a day-long image seminar, led by, well, let's just call him "Dant."
All 40 of us were instructed to bring three outfits for critique: casual chic, power business, and elegant evening. Confidently, I changed into my first outfit, casual chic: low heeled navy pumps with matching hose, tailored navy wool trousers, red silk shirt, a navy cashmere sweater, and a red and navy silk scarf.
I stood before the group for my critique. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being "you belong in Vogue Magazine" and 1 being "you should move back in with your mother so she can dress you," Dant's score for this outfit: 5. He added, "You look like the captain of your bowling team." I was hurt. But I didn't let on.
I thought "I've got the other categories aced. I know I'll do better on them."
Second round--power business. I changed into my Evan Picone suit with silk blouse, pumps, matching hose, and silk scarf accented by "take charge" gold earrings.
Dant's assessment: 4. I thought: "I'm going the wrong way." He added "You look like a supervisor for Ma Bell making $18,000 a year." I was crushed.
We took a lunch break. Although I was near tears, I bolstered myself by thinking "I'm going to nail Elegant Evening." A student fashion designer friend had designed my gown and I'd made it. When I'd worn it to formal events I'd received lots of compliments. This was a sure thing.
I spent much of my lunch break redoing my makeup and putting my hair into an upsweep. I was lookin' good.
As I stood before the group, I knew Dant would be stunned by my sophistication. I awaited his pronouncement: 2. "You look like a librarian on her night out. Or a nun's idea of sexy."
I was devastated. I left that seminar so paralyzed that I couldn't go shopping alone for two years. I'd allowed him to strip me of my confidence about my appearance and taste.
Remember Riesman's quote "Words not only affect us temporarily--they change us." Dant's words changed me so that I was incapacitated. Words can cut, words can heal. Today, I see that my lesson was: "Humor, at someone else's expense, can cut more deeply than we'll ever know."
Compare Dant's comments with an equally harsh sounding statement that Robert's mentor made to him at the end of 1994. June, the mentor, had reviewed his financial statements for his two-year-old business and his forecast for the next 12 months. After much discussion, she told him, "Robert, you don't have a business, you have a hobby." Ouch. It was like having a bucket of ice water poured on him. It was hard to hear those words, but it woke him up. He immediately closed that business and joined forces with a colleague on a much more lucrative venture.
How are June's words much different from Dant's. Dant's words were public, said to entertain, not to help. Previous to and following June's words she had acknowledged Robert's talents and the parts of his business that he did well. There was none of that with Dant. June followed up with specific areas to help Robert. Again, none of that with Dant. And finally, their demeanors were different. Dant's was arrogant and superior; June's was caring, and interested in Robert's success.
Intellectually I know that we have the power to ignore others' disempowering words, or discredit the source, or simply reframe them more positively to serve us.
Well Meaning Words
Sometimes even well-meaning words affect us negatively. A woman spoke to me after I gave a speech on this topic and shared an example of this. Her granddaughter had died recently, and a friend of hers said, "I know just how you feel. Last year, my dog died."
Although she told herself that her friend was trying to empathize and comfort her, it hurt that her friend thought that losing a dog was the same as losing a granddaughter. As much as she told herself that her friend was trying to be helpful by expressing the sadness of losing someone close to her, she still cried as she told the story.
Several years ago, I served as Convention Logistics Chair for my professional association. My overall responsibilities included a multitude of things, from recruiting over 100 volunteers, to overseeing each session's room setup. I was accountable for hundreds of details that would set the meeting's tone and ensure the smoothness of the sessions.
I had flown cross country twice, at my own expense, to attend committee meetings. I had spent countless hours on my duties.
On the last day of the convention, the president called a handful of key volunteers on stage. He'd intended to acknowledge us in front of our 1600 peers.
He said a few things about each volunteer and what each had contributed to the convention. When he came to me he said just two sentences I will never forget.
"Rebecca did the little things. If no one else would do it, we knew Rebecca would."
I winced. I was stunned. I felt like someone had stabbed me in the heart. I barely noticed the audience giving us a standing ovation.
I returned to my seat. I couldn't even hear the next speaker being introduced. All I could hear were those words pounding in my ears. I felt so diminished, so unvalued. It felt like he thought I'd made a few copies, or collated a few packets. I had to sneak out of the room because I couldn't keep from crying.
I tried to tell myself that he knew I'd done more. He was present at the meetings I'd flown in for. He'd been Logistics Chair before. He knew all that I had done. Which made it hurt even more.
I was upset the rest of the day. His words had the opposite effect than he wanted. He hadn't thought about it before he opened his mouth.
You may have the opportunity to acknowledge your associates publicly. I implore you, beseech you, entreat you--think through your comments before you say them. Think: how would I like this honoree to feel after my comments?
Contrast that to a letter I received from Terry, the convention chair, a few days later:
"Dear Rebecca: Thanks for being part of my all-star convention team! I couldn't have done it without you. Knowing you were in charge of logistics helped me focus on the general sessions. Your calm focus and follow through made it all possible.
"You've been with me for the long haul. Your discipline and invaluable experience came through over and over again."
I felt valued, acknowledged, and special. He had chosen words that were specific to me and what I had contributed. It was only six sentences, but the power of those six sentences helped ease the hurt from the president's blunder.
Words Can Make Us Feel Special
How often has someone's few words made us feel special?
My friend, the amazing speaker Rosita Perez, has a knack for saying the right thing. She's known in our professional organization as having close relationships with hundreds of her colleagues. Here's an excerpt from a fax she sent to Robert:
When we left the hotel, we saw you briefly in the lobby. You were so quiet. I told Ray (her husband) "Robert says so much to me, even without speaking. I just 'hear' him in the silence." That is a rare, rare, gift you have my friend. I guess that's why Ray and I think you are so special."
It was just a few words. Yet the power in Rosita's words. Robert felt valued, loved. She had touched his heart.
We all have that opportunity in our lives--to touch people's hearts. We can help a colleague feel better about the report that wasn't well received, or we can rub it in. We can "joke" when a friend is cheating on her diet, or we can acknowledge how difficult it is, and how we know she has the focus to stay on target. Our words can leave someone feeling empowered, or paralyzed.
Often it is hard to remember the specifics of positive, encouraging words. We can all remember someone in our life who had a major role in shaping who we are today through their loving, positive words. Perhaps it was a coach, teacher, relative, boss, or friend. Often we can't remember exactly what she or he said, but we know they made a difference in our life.
My friend Mary McGlynn is an example of this. She knows exactly what to say when I need some support. I can't quote specific words, yet I always feel better after having talked to her.
Without lecturing, Mary has a way of helping me see situations as learning opportunities. She doesn't negate the pain of a situation, but asks the right questions, and listens, really listens, to the answers.
Mary uses the power of her words to make everyone feel special. It's not in a sugary sweet, Pollyanna way, but in a sincere, genuine expression of her regard for that person. I've seen her do this not only with friends, but also with strangers she's barely met.
The story of my high school friend, Dave Mulligan, is the most potent example of the power of words that I know.
At our 10 year reunion I watched him enter the room. In high school I'd harbored a not-so-subtle crush on him, even volunteering to keep score for the swim team so I could watch him compete in his Speedos.
Even ten years older, he looked like a Greek god--he was "Bay Watch" handsome, his blond curly hair setting off his striking blue eyes. He'd become a carpenter, so his athletic frame was filled out with strong muscles. I'm afraid I clung too long as he hugged me hello. He seemed to have everything going for him.
Five years later, all that changed. He took his first recreational parachute jump. The jump was going fine until he was 100 ft. from the ground. The person guiding him from the ground gave him conflicting signals. Go right, no left. At about 50 ft., Dave saw he was going to run into either a row of cars, a trailer or a barbed wire fence. There was open space beneath him. It was his only chance. He needed to land quickly.
As he'd been instructed to do in order to land quickly, he pulled his chute's strings hard. Too hard. His chute collapsed. He fell 40 feet straight down. It was the same as falling from a four story building.
Several vertebrae were crushed around his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
In the hospital after surgery, his doctors told him he'd never walk again. Although he had no feeling in the lower part of his body, he was determined to walk out of the hospital. When he kept insisting he was going to walk, the doctors insisted he see a psychiatrist to help him through his denial.
He was joined in his determination by his physical therapist, Helga. Every day she said, "Dave, wiggle your toes." Every day he tried and tried, yet couldn't. After each daily treatment, focusing on her words, he continued to try to wiggle his toes, determined to walk again. Helga didn't give up either, even though she knew what the doctors had said.
"You can do it; keep trying," she insisted. Everyday she encouraged and caringly hounded him with her words. He would struggle to wiggle his toes every waking hour. "This is now my full time job," he told himself, "toe wiggling. And I'm going to be the best toe wiggler there ever was."
After three weeks of trying for countless hours, his left big toe miraculously wiggled. Hallelujah! This meant there was a neural connection from his brain to his toe. Soon his other toes were wiggling. There was hope for him.
Bolstered by his success, he worked even harder to make his legs work. After only three months, he was amazingly able to walk with the aid of crutches. He was able to go from a paraplegic to ambulatory in an incredibly short amount of time. He now walks without crutches, and is not only happily married, but the father of a little girl.
Dave's determination, buoyed by Helga's persistence and words of encouragement, helped him change the outcome of his life. If he'd listened to his doctors words and had not been motivated continually by the simple power of Helga's words, he'd be in a wheelchair, and have a much different life.
When he shared this story, he told me:
"It seems very difficult to motivate our mind and especially our bodies to do things that are nearly impossible. The power of thought--for example, seeing someone running and wanting to do the same--was the most effective healing power for me, but also the hardest to stay focused on. However the simple, constant 'chant' of 'wiggle your toes David' worked wonders to help continue that thought process and keep me focused."
We have opportunities every day to use our words to cut or to heal. Every time we open our mouth, We have a choice. You and I have the power to make others feel great--or horrible. With that power comes responsibility. We have the obligation to use that power in the best way possible for our fellow humans.
In my life's journey I'm learning to be vigilant in my awareness and sensitivity to not only the effect others' words have on me, but on the long-lasting effect my words have on others. It's true, "Words not only affect us temporarily--they change us."
Let's use the power of our words thoughtfully and positively to help prevent more pain on the planet and help heal the pain that's already here.
*The Lonely Crowd, 1961, Yale Univ. Press. p. 89.
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