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“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words (or names) can never hurt me.” … Ever hear this? I grew up with it. It comes from an old nursery rhyme. When I was a boy, my mother would tell me this when other kids were saying mean things to me or someone I loved or something I liked. It makes sense at first blush. Words, by themselves, don’t break bones, damage flesh, or cause other types of physical harm. Words are words. Right?
I loved nursery rhymes and stories as a kid. I still do. My favorite was “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” – a children’s poem. The book my mother read from each night had a really cool illustration of this poem. After reading, she would let me look at the picture. Sometimes I even glimpsed the picture prior to the reading. She had a great way of reading. The right tone. The right pronunciation. The right pace. I loved listening to her rendition of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod as my eyelids got heavy and started drifting off to sleep.
Wynken, Blinken and Nod never physically hurt me. It was a poem. In fact, I loved it. On the other hand, words I didn’t love, like the base words said to me by thoughtless, insensitive, or ignorant people over the years never physically hurt me either. Yet words have an impact. Wouldn’t you agree?
I’ve written before on communication. In fact, I’ll say it again. Master communication and you can pretty well master anything. If you’re world-class at speaking or writing or using non-verbals, you can have world-class impact as an author, politician, coach, actor, song writer, corporate leader, parent. Anything! All world-class leaders I know are, in some form, world-class communicators. They may not all be eloquent or have perfect diction. But in their own way, they communicate with world-class excellence.
Yes, I know it’s work, but it’s worth it. Selecting the right word leads to a great results because it provides a positive consequence to the receiver. It’s positive reinforcement. Selecting the wrong word leads to negative results because it provides a negative consequence to the receiver. It’s punishment.
One person I know says, “You can’t expect someone to always select THE right word! It’s too hard!” I kinda agree with that person. Choosing our words can be difficult. That’s why speech writers, song writers, and authors write and re-write. That’s why there are editors. Yet if it’s important, it’s worth thinking about and choosing the right words.
A bit of advice. Often (usually), it’s not necessary to select THE right word. Any number of words will work. But, not selecting one of the right words can have harmful effects. There may be many words (or phrases) that would work. You can choose any one of them and have the desired consequence. Yet, if you select the wrong word, it can have unintended, negative consequences. Maybe the best way to say it is that are often appropriate words or phrases in a “good word” pool and inappropriate words or phrases in a “bad word” pool. You have many options. Just be sure to select a word from the “right” pool.
It’s also important to recognize and understand that culture and individual type preferences play a key role in communication. This makes good communication even more challenging. Who said it was easy? A few examples will help illustrate.
A teenage boy likes a girl and wants to take her to the school dance. He finally gets up the nerve to ask her and she replies, “I guess.” The boy is crushed. Yes, she’s going to the dance, but it sounds like she’s “settling” for him as her date. She could have said, “sure” or “ok” or “sounds good.” There’s not a magic formula, but “I guess” does not communicate positively that the girl wants to attend the dance with this particular boy.
A couple has been dating serious for a year and the young lady finally says to her boyfriend, “I love you.” He responds, “I like you too.” She slaps him. He thinks, “what’s wrong with her. I said I liked her. I do like her.” Clearly, the young lady was hoping he would say the “L” word – l o v e. There’s nothing wrong with liking something or someone. But in this circumstance, it was in the pool of “bad words.” I’m not saying the boy should tell the girl he loves her if he doesn’t, but if he does, then using the word “like” isn’t going to cut it.
At a year-end event, a corporate executive, speaking to thousands of employees who just helped the business their best performance in a decade says, “I suppose the year was alright, but we could’ve done better.” Perhaps the metrics didn’t indicate perfection so, theoretically, the business could’ve done better. But the words came from the “bad word” pool given the circumstances. What if he had said, “thanks for an amazing year.” Or, “this was really strong performance by our team. Thank you.”
In sum, there’s not always one right word or phrase. But there are appropriate and inappropriate word selections. Choose wisely.
Sticks and stones can’t break your bones, but words you use, both in written and verbal communication, are important. The right word can motivate, encourage, shape, and inspire. The wrong word can cause the opposite. World-class leaders have world-class communication skills, including the ability to choose the right word. Is it easy? Not always. Worth it? Always.
What words have hurt you? What words have encouraged you? How do the words you use build up or tear down?
As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.