Words Matter

Article contributed by Amy Sargent

How careful are you when choosing your words?

A friend recently complained, with annoyance in her voice, that she felt like she really had to watch what she said around certain friends. My immediate thought was, “Um, yeah…!” It’s a pleasant reverie to think our words don’t matter, and hold on to the belief that we shouldn’t have to make effort with those we’re close to. And I agree — it would be easier to never have to exercise self-awareness and other awareness in conversations — easier, and more comfortable — especially if we don’t care about damaging relationships!

Words matter.

Are you someone who speaks from your stream of consciousness, or do you slow down to think before you talk? Do you say whatever pops into your head or choose your words before uttering them?

“Be mindful when it comes to your words. A string of some that don’t mean much to you may stick with someone else for a lifetime.”

Rachel Wochin

If you long for healthier relationships, it may be time to give attention to effective communication–knowing how to speak clearly and listen actively, promoting open conversation, where everyone feels safe and heard. It may be to your benefit to notice what’s coming out of your mouth — or fingertips — and carefully choose your words, no matter whom you’re communicating with. And I’ll dare to venture, especially with your closest friends and loved ones.

So, let’s start here: Do you consider yourself a good communicator? If yes, how do you know? Would others say the same about you?

In a time when emotions are running high, it seems people these days are quick to state their opinions, but slow to hear the viewpoints of others. We’ve become a society who is easily offended. We take things personally, hear only what we want to hear, and get good at shouting about our beliefs while closing our ears to other points of view. Misunderstandings abound. And the fact that so many of us have moved from face-to-face conversations to exchanges on our screens hasn’t helped. Instead of building relationships and creating bonds, more often than not our words tear down and destroy bridges. Why is this?

“Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

Abraham Joshua Herschel

Words can make a lasting impression and stay with us for an entire lifetime. In the blog Words Have the Power to Make Relationships or Break Relationships, the author Joi writes this: “Words have the power to heal broken hearts and make dreams come true. They have the power to make people better about themselves. They also have the power to break hearts and  keep dreams from coming true. And of course they have the power to tear someone down completely and cause them to feel completely worthless.” [https://www.selfhelpdaily.com/words-have-the-power-to-make-relationships-or-break-relationships/]

Think of a time when someone’s words hurt you. Do you still remember what they said — and how you felt? Now think about a time when someone gave you a sincere compliment, which lifted your spirits for days. Do you still remember those words, and how it felt?

And it doesn’t make sense to let down when with loved ones. In her article entitled, Control Your Anger: How Hurtful Words Can Damage Your Relationship, author Rachel Moheban-Wachtel notes, “It’s not uncommon for someone to say cruel words to their partner during a heated argument. Often, they may not mean it but it’s hard to control anger when you are feeling hurt. Even so, painful statements can have lingering damage to the trust, commitment, and intimacy in a relationship.” [https://www.relationshipsuite.com/control-your-anger-how-hurtful-words-can-damage-your-relationship/

Words matter.

The makings of a good communicator

You may think if you clearly and succinctly share your perspectives, you’ve earned the title of a good communicator. Maybe you have a lot of followers on your social media pages which give you the illusion that your opinions are popular. Social media platforms have made it very easy to speak your mind, often to a large audience. But effective communication is so much more than stating your views. 

While a component of effective communication is being able to communicate your opinions in a logical, organized manner, it’s also about listening to feedback without becoming defensive (and how can you hear feedback if you never ask for it?) It’s about creating an atmosphere where everyone feels supported, ‘scooting over’ to provide ample room for others to share their outlooks. It’s about being an excellent listener, with the purpose of seeking mutual understanding. It’s about noticing emotional cues which the other person may be trying to communicate, verbally or non verbally. It’s about asking open-ended questions, and allowing the other person to speak until they’ve fully communicated what they’re trying to say, suspending your judgments and withholding advice unless asked. It’s about being someone who is easy for others to connect with, being approachable and open to soliciting differing opinions, and staying open to having your mind changed at times. 

It sounds like a superhero ability, doesn’t it?

When communication breaks down

Becoming an effective communicator requires an awareness of your strengths and areas of growth…and we all have room to improve! Below are a few indicators of poor communication. Which one best describes you?

  • You ridicule others for their opinions
  • People avoid talking to you about the ‘real’ stuff and keep things shallow
  • Everyone in the room with agrees with you
  • People wander off and/or make excuses to exit conversations with you
  • You’ve been told you lack tact or are “a little rough around the edges”
  • In 1:1 conversations, or in groups, you do most of the talking
  • You miss non-verbal signals such as body language and gestures
  • You fail to notice when your listeners are uninterested or bored
  • You often say, “I’m not good with names”
  • It’s difficult to hear the meaning behind others’ words; instead, you take everything you hear literally
  • You pride yourself in speaking the truth even if it hurts…and you’ve hurt a lot of people
  • You know very few personal details about the people you’re talking with
  • Your words sting and often cause others to appear upset, agitated, or angry
  • You find yourself often thinking, “I don’t care if they like me as long as they respect me”
  • Your opinion is usually ‘right’
  • You only hang out with people who think and believe the same as you
  • It’s your way or the highway

Can you relate to a few of these? If so, no shame. We’re human and sometimes we miss. But if any of these have become a pattern, it’s time to recognize your communication skills could use some improvement. What is excellent about emotional intelligence competencies like effective communication is that they can be developed. You don’t have to keep repeating behaviors which aren’t working for you (and others).

Steps Toward Growth

Self-awareness is the first key to developing better communication skills. If any of the above resonate with you, simply own that your communication needs some work. Spend some time thinking about and/or journaling about the points above. Which one shows up for you most? When does it show up? With whom? Why? How do you feel when it shows up? How do others feel when it shows up?

“A word is a bridge. It is a wave of light and sound that spans the perceived distance between one thing and another.”

Thomas Lloyd Qualls

Even if there are several areas needing attention, decide upon one which you’d first like to begin to work on. Not sure where to start? Ask yourself this, “Which one of these is tripping me up the most?”, or, “Which one of these is causing me (and others) the most angst?” Still not sure? Ask a trusted friend or colleague, or enlist the help of an emotional intelligence coach.

Exercising New Communication Muscles

Becoming aware that your communication needs improvement is a great first step, but awareness is not going to fix anything. You’ll next have to take a step in an new direction. It’s like when you want to build up a muscle in your body. It’s one thing to be aware that you need to exercise, but it’s the action of exercising which brings about muscle development. In the same sense, emotional intelligence needs to be exercised and practiced.

Here are some exercises to try:

Approach others with positivity. A smile can go a long way, and starting conversations on a positive note can set the tone for acceptance and connection. Humor is a terrific way to set the tone for a conversation, as long as it’s not the kind which comes from making fun of/putting down someone else. Relax, and be aware of your facial expressions and if possible, remove that frown at the start of a conversation.

Find the commonalities. Before spouting off how your beliefs differ, first seek common ground. What do you agree on? If you can’t find anything, know that there is one thing we all experience: emotions. Everyone has been afraid, or sad, or excited, or nervous. There’s not one emotion that someone else hasn’t also experienced. The circumstances (or beliefs) causing the emotions may be different, but those feelings are the same. Listen for the emotions the other person is expressing and acknowledge them with a “me, too.”

Gratitude goes a long way. It’s easy to label someone who disagrees with you as the enemy. Try having a political discussion with someone who is in the other camp as you, and watch the walls go up. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Offering up gratitude is one way to bridge the differences. When a conversation begins to get heated, try to think of the things you like about this person, what you appreciate about them. Verbally express your gratitude, and let them know what you value about them, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying.

“It’s good to shut up sometimes.”

Marcel Marceau

Seek to first understand. Instead of starting every conversation with your views, make it a habit to spend time exploring the other person’s perspective first. Ask open-ended questions to learn not only what they think, but why. Try to refrain from passing judgements as they speak. Giving verbal feedback such as “I see”, or “I can understand how you feel that way”, can go far in making someone feel safe. It’s OK to offer this kind of verbal support, even if you don’t agree with them. You’re not agreeing — you’re simply validating their freedom to believe what they believe. One of my favorite questions these days is, “What else?”

Hone your listening skills. It’s tough, but try to stop thinking about what you’re going to say next while the other person is speaking. Instead, tune in. Ask questions to clarify your understanding, and repeat back what you’re hearing to check your understanding. Stop multi-tasking (put down those phones!). Maintain appropriate eye contact to discern what they’re saying, in between their words, looking for body language and other non-verbal signals. Nod often to let them know you’re tracking with them. A nod doesn’t mean you agree — it just means you hear them.

“Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire and judgement — and, for a moment at least, existing for the other person.”

Michael P. Nichols

Validate emotions. Often, when people are expressing their outlook and options, strong emotions arise. This is normal — and the emotions they’re feeling are probably very similar to your own. Validate them for feeling this way. More often than not, others need to know that it’s OK for them to feel the way they are feeling. You don’t have to agree with their statements to validate their feelings. Phrases like, “I see why you’d feel that way”, or “that sounds really tough” are ways to show empathy, in efforts to validate what they’re experiencing, emotionally.

Maintain composure when you talk. Irrational outbursts of negative emotions can prevent the other person hearing you…instead, they’ll just be thinking, “She’s really angry” and notice how quickly your face is turning beet red. If you truly want to be heard, maintain a calm demeanor. If you sense your emotions ramping up, which is normal, notice how they’re affecting your body (rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, for example), and breathe deeply. Take a break if needed to allow your emotions to move through the amygdala (emotion control center of your brain) to the cortex, so your words can come out more rational and reasonable.

Express appreciation often with genuine sincerity. OK, that’s hard to do, especially the genuine sincerity part. This is one of those fake it ’til you make it actions. Get in the habit of saying, “Thanks for sharing your opinions”, “I value what you have to say”, or “thank you for taking the time to explain that to me”, even if you don’t agree. It’s a good practice to express appreciation and often does wonders in changing your outlook toward the other person.

 “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”

Mother Teresa

Add some filters

You may be quick to add a filter to a photo to enhance its impact. What about adding a filter to your words? Here are three filters to pass your words through before you say them, either verbally or in written form:

1-Does this need to be said?

2-Does this need to be said by me?

3-Does this need to be said by me, right now?

[https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/these-3-questions-will-immediately-increase-your-emotional-intelligence.html]

So pay attention to the words you use. And while you’re at it, hone your listening skills so you can begin to understand what those around you are trying to communicate as well.

“Words are seeds that do more than blow around. They land in our hearts and not the ground. Be careful what you plant and careful what you say. You might have to eat what you planted one day.”

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