We all know about the power of words, yet we can be very careless in how we wield them, particularly in our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves. While we are probably a bit more conscious of the damage they can do when talking to others, we don’t generally exercise the same caution when talking to ourselves. ,
I don’t mean the power of words in the sense that they are intrinsically powerful; a string of letters is just a string of letters, no more. In the same way a musical score – mere dots on a page – are not a melody, and yet the informed mind can make a melody from them. So our minds can translate words and invest them with energy and meaning that go beyond dictionary definitions.
It is said that words have literal connotations and affective connotations (see S.I. Hayakawa if you want to know more). ‘Affective’ refers to the non-literal, emotional meaning that a word can have.
Informatively, ‘pig’, for example, means ‘porcine quadruped’ or ‘farm animal’. By contrast the affective connotation – interpretations which will vary from person to person – can provoke a quite different emotional response (address a policeman or woman ‘pig’ and see what happens next).
Think of the lexicon you carry around with you. It contains words and phrases that describe you. Much of it you keep hidden, because many of the words are judgements that you make about things that you’d rather not accept or admit to (since our own opinions of ourselves are often about how we fall short in some way, you naturally don’t want to broadcast them).
But, even though we keep these private, they still affect us. You may radiate confidence, but it’s what you feel inside that has the bigger effect. “I’m going to pass the exam” is only really going to help you if your truly believe it. If the words you utter are swiftly countered with a contradictory thought you won’t have mastered the complete equation for success.
Here’s an exercise
Sit comfortably, relax. Then, with your eyes closed, repeat the sentence “I have a big problem!” Do this 10 times
Notice what you are feeling physically and emotionally. Pay attention to how this repeated sentence impacts on your body and on your emotions.
When I’m doing this exercise with a group I notice that they begin to wilt a bit, the more they repeat the sentence. I see the participants beginning to slump, their backs curve, shoulders fall, any smiles disappear as facial muscles tighten (some might even frown). Physical and emotional tensions increase.
When I ask for feedback following this part of the exercise people often report that they felt sad, nervous or worried as they did it. How does it affect you if you try this?
Before doing the second part of the exercise it’s a good idea to ‘change state’ a little by breaking off to stretch, move about, and changing your thoughts (I often ask people to remember what they had for breakfast, or to recall an image of a favourite holiday destination).
Then settle comfortably again, relax as before, and then repeat the following 10 times: “I have a unique opportunity!”
Once again, observe the effects this repeated sentence has on how you feel physically and emotionally.*
And in real life?
There’s a more commonplace example that demonstrates the power of words. ‘Challenge’ is a word that has crept into the vocabulary workplace cultures. People are told to ‘challenge’ each other around certain ideas and behaviours (as in ‘challenge discrimination, racism’, or whatever). I’m not questioning the desirability or wisdom of this, but try the following:
You witness a colleague doing something you disapprove of. You say to yourself “I must challenge X on what I’ve just seen”. How confident and powerful do you feel?
Conversely, now say to yourself “I’m curious, I’d like to have an interesting conversation with X about what I’ve just seen”. Now notice how you feel.
This is exactly the exercise I’ve been doing in my workshops for years. While few would actually say they are eager to have the conversation, the effect of changing the language to the second version is universally more acceptable and empowering. That’s how the power of words can affect us.
Well, it would be wouldn’t it? Words have power and it’s less challenging.
*With thanks to Fletcher Peacock, Water the Flowers not the Weeds for the original idea.