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June 2019 –

Words Matter

“Lack of caution on how we speak to others destroys most relationships” –Joseph Telushkin

What effect do your words have on others? What effect do others’ words have on you?

How often do you pay attention to the words you use and how others react to them? This article focuses mainly on individual words and short phrases, rather than long sentences or more.

A recent article I read on the major contribution to Mr. Roger’s (Sesame Street) success describes how he thoughtfully chose the words he used to get the positive responses he did from children. It’s worth reading to help understand how words impact others.

The effect of your words doesn’t end in childhood, although it usually starts there. Each of us will likely have our own set of “trigger” words that generate a more positive or negative reaction.

Think about some words you can identify that get a strong reaction from you, both positive and negative, and write them down. Writing them down will give you a more complete understanding of your reactions, including:

  • What was the origin of that trigger from earlier in your life?
  • What people or situations are most likely to evoke your response today?
  • What are the effects—in your body and your emotions?
  • What do you do when this happens? e.g. for negative reactions–get defensive, angry, withdrawn, etc. for positive reactions—feel more trusting, willing to be more open, have more positive regard for the other person, etc.

One of the main reasons we develop the reactions we do is related to what behaviors accompanied the original expression. For example, if your parent or other important person to you said “You are so sensitive” and it was expressed in a positive tone of voice, indicating this was a quality to be desired, you would have a different reaction than if the same words were expressed in a negative or judgmental tone. Those words then become trigger words as you go through life and will bring up the same reaction. As an adult, even if the words are expressed in a neutral way, you are likely to attach the same meaning to them as you did when you were a child.

There are also some words and phrases that have a more general positive or negative reaction, not necessarily attached to early experiences. These can be words you say to yourself or that others say to you.

One example is the word “problem.” Think about what your initial reaction is to hearing this word from others or saying to yourself: I have/you have” a problem. Now think about your reaction to changing the word to challenge: “I have/you have a challenge.” When I use this example in my classes, almost everyone feels a more negative reaction to the word “problem.” They report feeling a sense of heaviness and stress. When the word is changed to “challenge,” they report feeling more energized and challenged in a positive way.

Another phrase that usually creates a negative reaction are the words “I’ll try” to do this.” The words imply the possibility or even likelihood of failure. Using the phrase “I will do this” or “I am going to do this” implies confidence and a prediction of success.

Here’s another word we use often spontaneously–without thinking, due to a feeling that bubbles up: “Why?” As in, “Why did you do that?” Why do you feel that way?” “Why is this so important to you?” etc. When we use the word “Why” in these ways, we are putting the other person on the defensive, asking them to explain or justify their behavior. Think about times when this question has been directed to you. How did it make you feel, and what were your responses?

Reflect on this for a moment. When you ask the question, it is likely the result of you not accepting or being satisfied with the other person’s behavior or words. And this is the message that the other person gets. It’s helpful to identify what feelings or judgments prompted the question. Then phrase your response in a way that is more open-minded, such as, “I would like to learn more about what prompted your words or actions. Can you tell me more?”

The appropriate use of the word “why” is when you are asking for tangible information, such as, “Why is the sky blue?” “Why am I feeling this way?” “Why am I unable to accept what others are saying,” etc.

Think about times in your life when words have upset your equilibrium, either when you said them to yourself or heard them from others. What was your reaction? How did it affect your subsequent attitude or actions?

Can you recall times when you used the above phrases speaking to others, whether it be a child, a friend, a mate, a relative or a co-worker? What did you notice about their reaction and how they followed up—or didn’t?

Since our biology often creates a hair-trigger defensive reaction, you or others might not be consciously aware of the effect of the words used, or tone of voice, unless you initiate a discussion. With people who are important in your life, it is helpful to sit down and have a dialogue about what words or phrases help grow or diminish the relationship.

As a therapist, I had many occasions where I listened to a conversation between two people (couples, parent and child, co-workers) and then asked the person on the receiving end to tell me what they heard. It was surprising to hear them use words that had not been said or even implied. What they were responding to was the speaker’s tone of voice or body language, and when viewed from that perspective, it was accurate! When our words don’t match what we are feeling, our body language or actions will give us away. This makes us less trustworthy.

I’m not talking about needing to walk on eggshells, to feel like you have to watch every word for fear of upsetting someone. Think of this as more of a learning experience, to notice how your words affect others and how it influences the well-being of your relationship. I’ve seen people turn relationships from defensive or negative to positive, simply by becoming aware of how their words impact their interactions and good will.

“Among my most prized possessions are words that I have never spoken” -Orson Rega

I’d love to hear from you, feel free to respond to this newsletter. I’d like to share your experiences with other readers (no names used) to help increase understanding and awareness.

Feel free to send this blog to anyone you think might be interested.
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