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Words Matter

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

Understanding the power of what you say

I can recall as a child the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Often said to bullies while we held back our tears. After a great deal of research, study, and teaching effective communication and being the recipient of harmful words, I fully understand that ‘Words Matter’.

Albert Mehrabian's famous formula expressing the dominance of nonverbal communication was derived from two studies he carried out with colleagues in 1967. They pioneered studies on the importance of nonverbal communication. According to Dr. Mehrabian, a speaker's words are only a fraction (7%) of her efforts. The pitch and tone of their voice, the speed and rhythm of the spoken word, and the pauses between those words may express more than what is being communicated by words alone. His research provided the basis for the widely quoted and often over-simplified statistic for the impact of the words we use. The Mehrabian formula was established in situations where there was incongruence between words and expression. In other words, where the words did not match the facial expression or tone. In his research, people tended to believe the expression they saw, as opposed to the words spoken. Dr. Mehrabian's theory would not be applicable in a military environment which is a strongly autocratic environment. On the other hand, it could be applicable in management, business, and personal situations where motivation and attitude have a significant impact on outcomes.

In Conversation with Others

Understanding the importance of the words we choose when we communicate is extremely important for effective communication and relationship building. Remember, Dr. Mehrabian's research was performed over 50 years ago! When we reflect on all the changes in our world over the past 50 years --- from globalization, technological advancement, and people relocating all over the world for a variety of reasons. I have been teaching cross-cultural communication and multicultural team effectiveness for over 20 years. I am unable to teach many of the tools I taught a few years ago because of the increased use of emails, texting, and other forms of social media. These are all forms of communication where we only have words as a basis of understanding what the sender of the communication means. Therefore, the sender must choose their words wisely and keep in mind that they can have the best intentions in the world but the receiver will only respond to the impact of the words they hear. There are a variety of factors that go into how the receiver is impacted.

Our communication is fueled by our filters, these filters include our experiences, stereotypes, biases, generalizations, and the biggest filter of all, our culture. Imagine two people having a conversation and every word must go through two layers of filters.

With the current social and political unrest and the COVID and racial pandemic of 2020, it has become more and more evident that words matter. Words are extremely powerful tools that we can use to uplift, heal, and improve the lived experiences of others. Words, fueled with fear, anger, hatred, frustration, resentment, and jealousy can destroy families, friendships, communities, cities, and countries.

Remember – Words have great power, so choose them wisely!

Giving and Receiving Feedback

We all need feedback – it is essential for our development. In the workplace, it helps us to recognize how we are progressing toward the agreed upon goals; specifically, we can learn about what we are doing well and should continue doing (Reinforcing Feedback), and what we need to do differently (Corrective

Feedback). It is equally beneficial in our personal lives as it helps us maintain and fortify successful relationships.

You may have all been asked at one time or another by someone if they could give you feedback and wondered why it caused you to get knots in your stomach. At some point during the conversation, they may have said "don't take this as negative feedback, it is meant to be constructive criticism". There is no such thing as constructive criticism. Merriam-Webster defines criticism as "the act of criticizing usually unfavorably." Criticism implies judgment and who likes to feel like they are being judged? Daniel Goleman, in his HBR article What Makes a Leader, states that threats to our self-esteem in the eyes of others are so potent they can literally feel like threats to our very survival.

As I stated earlier, feedback is essential. What makes it beneficial is its usefulness to the individual receiving it. If the words used to provide the feedback makes it difficult for the person to hear, triggering emotional buttons, then the likelihood of achieving a positive outcome will be diminished.

Some key things to remember when we want to give someone feedback:

• Always seek to understand completely before you offer someone feedback.

• Avoid "mind reading" or talking about the person's intentions.

• Ask specific questions and don't make assumptions.

• Use appropriate words and timing.

• Use nonjudgmental, non provocative language.

• Using "I messages" are less judgmental to the receiver than "you messages."

For example, "I am confused" instead of "You confused me again."

• Take responsibility for your words. Remember words are not simply sounds

caused by air passing through the larynx.

Think about the fact that your words hold incredible power, positively or negatively. Everything that you express in words has the power to influence and change the lives of everyone in your world. You get to make a choice to use words that inspire or destroy. Once you speak the words, they cannot be retracted no matter how many ways you apologize.

It is important that we speak our truth, but in doing so, we must be mindful about what we say and how we say it. Assertive communication means that we take the needs, wants, and feelings of the recipient of our communication into consideration. Otherwise, it is defined as aggressive communication.

People will forget what you said

People will forget what you do

People will never forget how you make them feel

- Maya Angelou

Remember – The real meaning of your words is in the impact that it has on the receiver.

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