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The Power of Words


This I believe:  The words we use have the power to create, heal, enlighten, engage, strengthen and join together.  They also have the power to destroy, hurt, diminish, cut and tear apart.  We can use them as tools, and we can use them as weapons.

These are the “definitions” I’m using:

  • Wordsthe utterances we use as a primary way to communicate.
  • Powerhaving the ability to affect change.

According to a 2007 University of Arizona study, both men and women use approximately 16,000 words a day.  That’s a lot of potential power flowing out of our mouths each day!   16,000 utterances that can heal or hurt, build or destroy, enlighten or diminish.

And, to borrow from Voltaire:  “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

This begs the question:  What does it mean to use our words—to communicate—responsibly?  In a nutshell, responsible communication is the cornerstone to healthy relationships, whether in business, at home, volunteering in the community, with friends, or with ourselves.

Here are my “10 Ways to Use Words Responsibly”

  1. Intentionally choose words that help, rather than hurt—It’s your choice.  PAUSE, think about what you want your outcome to be, and only then speak.  If you want to welcome the continuation of a conversation and the nurturing of a relationship, be sure to use words that engage positively:  “Tell me more about that idea.” vs. “You’re wrong”.  “Thanks for helping me set the table. I appreciate your help.”  vs.  “I’ve told you a hundred times, that’s not where the knife goes!”
  2. Replace “but” with “and”: The word “but” serves as a sharp pin that pricks and deflates (think of a balloon).  See what happens when you use “and”, instead.  “And” allows for possibilities, expansiveness, potential.  “But” limits, narrows and controls.
  3. Mean what you say, and say what you mean: Be as specific and accurate as possible, and avoid using absolute terms like “never” and “always”.  And do so with kindness, compassion, and respect for yourself and others.  It doesn’t help anyone if you say “yes” when you really want to say “no”, or if you say something in order to make someone think a particular way about you.  Ultimately, responsible communication is about being truthful and not intentionally manipulative or hurtful.
  4. Check your assumptions: There’s an old folk saying that says, “The wise one hears one word—and understands two.”  Pay attention to how you are feeling and what you are thinking when someone is speaking with you.  Are you sure you understand their intention?  If not, check in. (“What I think you’re meaning is…Did I get it right?”)
  5. Watch your tone: Make sure your tone matches your intention and words.  If you are worried, make sure your tone/words are compassionate, and not angry.  If you’re happy and excited, make sure your tone is joyful and positive, and not sarcastic.
  6. Use humor, respectfully: And not at another’s expense.  An example of responsible use of humor is when a person uses it to help set a positive and fun tone, diffuse tension, or help people feel relaxed and comfortable.  Humor, and sarcasm in particular, can often be used in a cutting way that leaves another feeling small.  Avoid the urge to use this kind of humor.  It might seem funny to you, but often feels very much not so to the person who’s the butt of the joke!
  7. Make sure to leave space for the other:  Avoid the temptation to be at the center of every conversation and to be the one to find solutions for every problem presented in a conversation.  Respectful communication also means honoring the wisdom and capacity of the person or people with whom you are speaking, no matter the age or experience of the others.
  8. Listen…fully:  We were born with two ears and only one mouth, so, the saying goes, we should listen at least twice as often as we speak.  Respectful communication means listening completely, and not formulating your rebuttal while the other person is sharing their thoughts.
  9. Minimize judgment:  Rather than receiving information with judgment and criticism, try curiosity, fascinating or compassion instead.  This one small change in thinking can be one of the most significant shifts you can make in a relationship.
  10. Model for others:  Whether or not we intend to, we teach others all the time by how we interact in the world.  When we use language that is respectful, honoring, kind, caring, compassionate, appropriately humorous, judgment-free, and helpful, we provide an opportunity to help others do the same.  And just think, we’ve got an average of 16,000 opportunities a day to do so!

Are there other things that you think belong on this list?  Let me know.  I’d love to hear from you!

And if you’d like to do some coaching work together to get clear on how to more effectively communicate, I’d be happy to help.  Contact me!

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