The Power of Words

As published by Dan Black on Leadership – March 1, 2014


A little while ago, a very talented and normally compassionate and considered client absently referred to his team as “idiots.”

In our coaching sessions, I had begun to notice him talk about his team in a somewhat derogatory manner. And although I empathised with his frustration at their current performance, as his coach, I knew I needed to raise this growing trend around his language about them – with him.

When I did, he was shocked. And then a little sheepish. This had not been his intention and he was surprised at the power of his words. He had not always referred to them in this manner, but recently his frustration with the situation (and with them) had grown.

As his exasperation developed, his language he used to discuss them changed, ever so surreptitiously. His words were impacting him, how he viewed his team’s potential and others in the organisation. It was a ‘catch 22’ situation and a fulfilling prophecy.

Luckily he hadn’t called them idiots to their face! But this fact was almost irrelevant.

After some thought, he decided to try and look for the positive and to speak and think about them in a more positive way. In a manner which reflected their potential – even if they were not demonstrating it at that particular moment.

It got me thinking about the power of words.

I have such a strong aversion to the child nursery rhyme which says “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” That most definitely ‘aint the truth!

Our words have enormous power. And when the shadow we cast is bigger than others (such as when we are in a position of authority), our words can wield nothing short of colossal clout.

Consider the imperceptible yet powerful difference between the words ‘discriminate’ and ‘distinguish’. Or ‘deadline’’ and ‘due date’. Or ‘staff’ and ‘team’. Or ‘failure’ and ‘learning’.

And notice what happens when you praise someone immediately followed by the word BUT. You may as well have said nothing which preceded that little three letter word, such is its power to deflate.

Even jargon can be potent in its impact, especially when used to wield power. How often have you felt intimidated by lawyers, doctors or external expert consultants who provide an argument loaded with jargon and appeal to obscure results, so that you are simply obliged to accept it, or risk asking a “stupid question”?

The power of words also becomes painfully prevalent when you join a new industry that’s loaded with acronyms you can’t begin to understand.

When my husband joined the fishing industry, he had to contend with TACC (total allowable commercial catch), Danish seining ( a fishing method) and fish block (as it sounds, a whole lot of fish pressed together into a block), all in his first day (after two years he spouts out those same words as if fluent in this strange fishy second language!)

The culture of an organisation is a veritable treasure trove of how words have a huge impact. Have a look at your company values, the oft spoken words, and colloquialisms. It will give you a strong idea about what is valued.

What’s the moral of this story?

Choose your words carefully. Notice the language you use. Notice the impact they have on others.

How can you use words to demonstrate your values, your passion, and your belief in your people?

How can you use your words as a leader to do more good than harm?

I can’t think of a more powerful demonstration of the power of words than this 2 minute clip.

Watch it.

It’s not ‘alright’. It’s “awesome”.

Question: How have you seen the power of words, positive or negative, used by a leader?

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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