“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”
~George Gordon Byron
Words are powerful.
What we say reflects what we think. Our spoken word originates in our thought. Typically, most people don’t think consciously. Long established habits that have formed hard wired neural networks often dominate our thought patterns – and consequently, our language. Language is complex; neural patterns are shaped by our learned experiences which are influenced by cultural and social factors. In turn, language influences experience. Some might say language defines our reality. And what we say reinforces what we think – so the endless loop.
How we use our language in relation to our work can be particularly challenging. Preoccupation with time, technology and interpersonal demands can create a high level of stress that can trigger us emotionally – and our language often mirrors our internal struggle
“I can’t talk now – I’m slammed with work.”
“Can’t do it – I am under the gun at work.”
“My time is not my own”
“This guy is a pain in my neck”
“What personal life?”
“It is what it is” *
These words and phrases are not idle or random. They reflect our internal dialogue – the endless self-talk that either deplete or restore our energy reservoirs. Every word, every phrase you use programs your brain. The amazing plasticity of our brains is neutral – it can work for us – or against us. Think of your language as a label for your experience. Our common conditioning has unfortunately created a habit of labeling experience in two categories – good and bad. As we have experiences, we tend to place them in those categories, unconsciously. Our languages supports this – “oh I figured this project would go nowhere – what a waste of time,” or “well that didn’t turn out as I would have liked but I am going to take what I’ve learned from it and move on.”
How we use our language is in effect branding our experience.
Our Language Sets the Tone for our Communication
In the everyday banter of our communication, we tend to lose awareness of the words we use and why we are using them. These habits can be particularly hard to break in the lexicon of the workplace. As we adapt to cultures, we tend to use more of the language of that culture, speaking in a sort of shorthand that we think is understood by those who share it. Naturally, this is very common in close relationships and family systems, and even though many workplace relationships tend to replicate family connections, they have different emotional “stakes.”
A client’s recent example illustrated this well. Bryan, a smart and well-intentioned manager, was hired 18 months before this incident to manage a large group of people with an average of ten years of seniority in the company. When the group’s long time administrative assistant, Margaret, passed away, Bryan made an “innocent” comment to a colleague, Tina, (with the group for over 10 years) that we need to “find a new Margaret.” Tina, who had been with the group as long as Margaret, had a strong reaction to Bryan’s comment. But it wasn’t until months later that Bryan learned of Tina’s reaction to the comment. Called into a meeting with his manager, Bryan was told that a number of team members felt he was “insensitive,” “callous” and “condescending.” It appears that Tina had shared her reaction with some colleagues, who disturbed by the use of Bryan’s words, surfaced their own concerns and grievances about Bryan, that had been dormant.
Words have weight. They create impressions and make psychological connections. We take for granted that other people “get” our meaning and intention, and we’re often surprised that they do not. The emotional weight of our words can activate emotional issues within others. That is why words are so powerful. According to Nan Russell, author of Hitting Your Stride, Your Work, your Way, “Poorly chosen words can kill enthusiasm, impact self-esteem, lower expectations and hold people back. Well chosen ones can motivate, offer hope, create vision, impact thinking and alter results. “
Your language impacts others – and it impacts you. How much negativity has crept into your language? How is language reflecting – and defining your experience?
Whether it is the language of frustration, fear, anger, blame, resentment, complaint, disappointment, worry or doubt – your language is either disempowering you (and possibly others in the process) or energizing you.
In essence, all of our language is a statement of judgment – little is neutral. We are commenting on our experience of the world. Listening more carefully and deeply to our language gives us powerful insights about our internal world. Our language is a blueprint to our inner life. Let’s use it wisely.
* About the phrase “it is what it is” – the use of this phrase is becoming more widespread lately. I originally thought of it as kind of Zen-like – a mindful acceptance and recognition of things happening outside our control that we have come to terms with. I’m now thinking that the phrase is more reflective of passivity, a victim like resignation or cynicism.