Take care with words; they matter more than you may think

July 6th, 2014

imagesWe all know the nursery rhyme “Sticks and Stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Equally, I am sure that we have all been hurt by words spoken to us and have hurt others by our own words. It is clear that words do matter; they can be hurtful but they do also have the capacity to heal. The choice of the words we use can have a positive or negative impact so we need to be particularly careful when we wish to maintain positive relationships, are seeking to resolve conflict, having a difficult conversations or providing feedback.

I am very aware of this in the conflict resolution work that I do. (My previous blog referred to a technique used in mediation called positive reframing (http://blog.alisonlove.co.uk/2014/05/20/reframing-moving-the-picture-frame-for-a-different-view/ ). It is also something that I always highlight in the training I deliver around conflict resolution, mediation, difficult conversations and performance management.  As a result, I am constantly reflecting on the impact of the words we use. Recently however, I have also become increasingly interested in the psychology and neuroscience around words which provides further evidence of the impact that words have on the message received and on how we respond to it.

The science stuff

There is now growing evidence that negative words can change the neural pathways in the brain and are detrimental to the brain while positive words and positive emotions are beneficial.

Negative comments or words produce higher levels of cortisol. This shuts down the thinking parts of our brains and activates our fight or flight responses.  Positive words conversely create high levels of oxytocin which improves our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others; however oxytocin’s effects are less dramatic than cortisol and so the impact is less marked and long-lasting.

This can have a crucial impact on the effectiveness of performance feedback to employees. Feedback is something that employees want and if done correctly it will motivate and engage employees. Get it wrong and it will have a detrimental impact and  the negative comments will become magnified and the positive feedback will not be listened to properly. Similarly, in a conflict situation higher levels of cortisol will reduce our ability to communicate in a way that will help resolve issues and increase the chances of an adverse reaction that will exacerbate matters.

Other studies suggest that our brains can magically single out language from other sounds and direct it to the right “department” to give it meaning.

Some guidance based on the science

  • Positive emotions (and negative) are contagious. So if you want a positive empowering culture then you need to use positive words.
  • For each negative statement try to balance this with three positive statements.
  • Focus on goals and dreams rather than providing negative feedback on weaknesses and what people have done wrong.  “Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down.” (Richard Boyatzis The Hidden Driver of Excellence).
  • Keep your communication brief; it is suggested that we can only absorb one or two sentences or 30 seconds of speech at a time.
  • Facial expressions are also important, smiling in particular is very powerful and is rated as having the highest positive impact.
  • Ask questions that begin with “who”, “what”, “where”, “when” and “how”. These are more likely to get fuller responses that “would”, “should”, “is” “are” and “do you think” which will elicit more limited responses.
  • Avoid “is” or “I am”  as these invite a constrained comparisons. For  example consider the difference between “He is an idiot” versus “He acted like an idiot to me” or “I am a failure” versus “I think I’ve failed at this task”.

So back to “sticks and stones”; given that this old adage is incorrect; how did it come into being in the first place?  The rhyme is reported to have first appeared in The Christian Recorder of March 1862, to persuade a child victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, to refrain from physical retaliation, and to remain calm and good-natured.  So the rhyme does not really suggest that words do not hurt,rather it is seeking to encourage children to manage their physical and emotional response to hurtful words.

Finally I will leave the last word (no pun intended) to a quote from Hussein Nishah; “Be careful with your words. Once they’re said, they can only be forgiven, not forgotten”.










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