On “words are powerful”

Words are a powerful communication tool if we use them wisely. This is another “isn’t this obvious” statement, surely. However, the reality is that people are often sloppy with words and use them in ways that are actually completely unhelpful.

I have almost finished Martha Beck’s book, Finding your own North Star, about finding your own authentic life’s direction. In the book, Beck wants us to make the distinction between our true selves and our social selves (the ones we use to get by through daily life, often in ways that are at odds with our true selves).

In psychology, one outcome from the conflict between our true selves and our social selves is cognitive dissonance. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance, we often rationalise alternative explanations that help reduce such conflict but this prevents us from identifying and discovering our true selves. One of Beck’s key points is about how we use words to actually disguise the real reasons and real feelings we have about certain situations. By smoothing over difficult situations using words of comfort, rationalisations, and ambiguity, we are not addressing the real causes and the real impacts on our mind and body.

Moreover, by not accurately articulating the words that describe our real state of being, it is difficult for progess to be made in overcoming problems that are seemingly intractable in our lives. In fact, we will often act in ways that will have absolutely nothing to do in addressing our problem or feelings. A classic example that I have never forgotton from my early psychology readings at university, was the displacement effect. Something made you angry, you thought about it all day but didn’t address it, and then got home and kicked the poor old dog waiting for you in the driveway – you displaced your emotional state with a physical “solution” to an innocent bystander. It happens in many situations, and it’s not always the dog who wears the brunt of it.

Founding father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, agrees that the way we use words in our self-talk and with others actually affects our physical mind and body, especially with regard to optimism and pessimism. I heard Seligman speak at a seminar early last year and have read his books. The book I like best is Learned Optimism – a book that examines the way we use words to talk to ourselves and to others and the emotional states those words create. Seligman identified the three “P’s” of explanatory style: permanent (where events are seen as permanent, and therefore unchanging, as distinct from temporary), pervasive (where the explanation is couched in terms of always being the case rather than for a particular situation), and personalised (where the explanation is attributed to an external cause or an internal cause).

Both Beck and Seligman recognise the importance of words. How we use words can actually effect our emotional states of being (and the consequent impacts), how we choose to respond or otherwise to circumstances, and how we might use words more wisely to help in breaking through to achieve positive personal outcomes.

Words and how they are used are no less vital in our professional lives as well, particularly in communication and knowledge management disciplines. Taking the time to think and articulate the message that best serves the communication need will provide more positive outcomes than not going to the effort at all. Words do have power and we need to use them accordingly.

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One response to “On “words are powerful”

  1. Brad,

    couldn’t agree more. See the ‘just do it’ issue; ‘get over it’ is even worse. Worse still is confusing a desire to be careful with language with a desire to talk rather than do.

    ‘Just to it’ can have quite the opposite effect to what is apparently desired, as I saw at a recent conference. But people confuse thinking about words with not wanting to act.

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