The Power of the Words we Use

“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness…” (Audrey Hepburn)

Did you ever reflect on the power of words? Words can cause us to erupt into laughter, break down into tears, fly into a rage, sink into despair, or float on clouds of happiness. Pretty strong stuff, wouldn’t you say? Yet, that’s only the beginning, for the words we use do more than describe the events we experience and actions we take; they determine their outcomes. What I am today is the result of the words I have used. What I will become and experience tomorrow, depends on the words I use today.

My thoughts have no substance until they are shaped into words. Once they become words they can be strung together to make statements. And the statements I make create my reality. If I make angry statements, I AM angry. If I make joyful statements, I AM joyful. When I state my job is miserable, I AM miserable. When I state my job is interesting, I AM interested.

Sonia Croquette is another believer in the power of words: “Your own words are the bricks and mortar of the dreams you want to realize. Your words are the greatest power you have. The words you choose and the use establish the life you experience.”

The words we use can block our progress or clear the path to success and happiness. They can deprive us of personal power or release it. Words are potent. They are infused with a divine spark. They are a gift from God — tools, which are used to create our reality. Their significance is hinted at in verse one, chapter one, in the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Let’s move away from the theoretical and become more practical. The important point is that words are powerful and because we use them, we are powerful. But unless we are aware of their power and their proper use, the power may mistakenly be used destructively.

On November 17, 1847, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the following: “Words — so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!” So, let’s look at ways of combining words that will release our personal power, not block it, and ways that will prove to be constructive, not destruction.

Tom is an example. He lacks the power of his friends who are comfortable working with computers. When asked about it, he replies, “I’d like to learn how to use computers, but I have no time.” His combination of words, his statement, is filled with denial, negation, powerlessness, weakness, excuse, blame, and fear. Would you say his statement releases personal power or blocks it?

Let’s help Tom. We’ll begin by changing just one word in his reply. By changing BUT to AND, his reply now becomes, “I’d like to learn how to use computers, AND I have no time.” Look at what’s happened. Instead of one negative statement, we now have two separate statements. The first statement, “I’d like to learn how to use computers,” points to a desire to increase one’s personal power, so that’s good.

The second statement is an exaggeration and needs to be changed to a truthful one before we can continue. So, “I have NO time” becomes “I have LITTLE time.” This is actually a positive statement.  After all, if I have LITTLE time, I have SOME time. I can now accomplish my wish to learn about computers by spending a LITTLE time studying and practicing each day.

Do you feel any guilt, shame, or regret because you’re not doing some things that you wish you were? Good! Those feelings are your friends. They are your inner urges to become more powerful. Use those urges as inspiration to combine your words into empowering statements. Change BUT into AND, and add SO at the end of the statement. For example, change “I want to quit smoking, BUT I’m addicted” to “I want to quit smoking AND I’m addicted, SO (I will kick the habit by doing the following . . .).

If you find yourself often using BUT as an excuse, you can keep it in your statement if it makes it easier for you. But reverse the order of your statement and add SO. Here’s what I mean. Instead of saying, “I’d like to quit smoking, but I’m addicted” change it to “I’m addicted to cigarettes, but I’d like to quit, so . . . (I’m going to do the following).

Here’s another hint. Always replace SHOULD with COULD. Why? SHOULD conjures up feelings of stress, pressure, anxiety, and resentment. I feel like it’s something I don’t want to do. For instance, I SHOULD clean the house. Ugh! But when I use COULD it points to choice, which is the source of personal power. It also invites reflection on what would happen if I were to do what I COULD. Let’s see, now, I COULD clean the house, and if I were to do so, I would feel a lot better. Well, let’s get started!

Also, change HAVE TO to WANT TO … BECAUSE. In other words, “I HAVE TO clean the house” becomes “I WANT TO clean the house BECAUSE . . .” The WANT TO empowers you, and the reasons generated by BECAUSE motivate you to act. Similarly, change MUST to CHOOSE TO . . . BECAUSE. So, “I MUST clean the house” now becomes “I CHOOSE TO clean the house BECAUSE . . .”

Can you see how the words you use shape you and create your environment? Can you feel the enormous power locked into words? Don’t take your words lightly. Become aware of them and use them to empower yourself. Don’t allow a poor choice of words to strip you of your unlimited potential. To help you move forward, here’s another tip. Replace WISH, LIKE TO, or TRY with WILL. So, “I WISH I could quit smoking,” or “I’d LIKE TO quit smoking,” or “I’m going to TRY to quit smoking” becomes “I WILL quit smoking!” WILL releases commitment and allows you to work on a plan to reach your goal.

Finally, replace SOMEDAY, SOON, or EVENTUALLY with a specific date. “SOMEDAY I’ll start an exercise program” or “I plan to start exercising SOON” or, worse yet, “EVENTUALLY I’m going to join a fitness club” are statements that block my power. On the other hand, “I’m going to check out two fitness clubs and join one of them THIS WEEKEND” empowers me today and will create a much better future. Can you become aware of the words you use, change them, and develop your personal power? Of course you can. Let’s continue delving into the subject a little more deeply. 

Delving more Deeply into the Power of Words

Words are powerful. The words we use can heal or hurt. They can arouse enthusiasm, evoke joy, and unleash passion. But they can also provoke anger, inflict sorrow, and crush with despair. When speaking to others, we can use our words as daggers to kill their spirits or we can use them as helping hands to lift their spirits. The choice is ours, but . . .

The problem is most of us are so wrapped up in building our career, raising a family, and paying our bills that little or no thought is given to the power of words. Sadly, unawareness of this great power results in grave consequences. Marriages fall apart, friendships dissolve, and happiness eludes us.

Can you see how important it is to be mindful of our words? The Roman emperor Claudius did. For he said, “Say not always what you know, but always know what you say.” Yes, we need not say everything we know, believe, or feel because our words can hurt others. Rather than blurting out the first idea that comes to mind, we should pause and weigh our words carefully before speaking.

Buddha also understood the power of words. In fact, he considered it so important that he made it the third step of his “Eightfold Path.” (The “Eightfold Path” is his formula for ending suffering.) He cajoled his followers to practice RIGHT SPEECH (step three of the “Eightfold Path”). The “Right” of “Right Speech” means “that which leads to freedom from suffering.”

Buddha taught that the practice of “Right Speech” consisted of avoiding four types of speech. The first type to avoid is HARSH (unkind, mean, nasty, cruel, irritating). Engaging in unkind speech causes others to suffer. And when we cause others to suffer, there are negative consequences that will lead to our own suffering. For example, if I speak unkindly to everyone I meet, not only will they suffer, but my actions will cause me to become alienated, which will lead to my suffering. As a participant in the web of life, we have a duty to speak kindly. Kindly does not mean ingratiatingly, hoping to get rewards of any kind. Rather, kindly means with compassion, supporting others in their desire to grow.

The second type of speech to avoid is DIVISIVE (partisan, polarizing). Political parties (such as the Republicans and Democrats) fight for power in complete disregard for the wishes of those they are sworn to protect.  Religious extremists, in particular, are masters of this type of speech. In their lust for control, they separate and divide humankind. They oppress, torture, and kill with impunity those who disagree with them. It is this kind of speech that is responsible for the greatest amount of suffering.

The third sort of speech to avoid is FALSE (untruthful, deceitful, deceptive). Some modern businesses shamelessly reap huge profits by manufacturing lies. They rip off consumers without compunction. Others destroy reputations with gossip, fibs, and innuendos. Importantly, as we stop lying to others, we grow more truthful to ourselves. It’s good to remember that it is impossible to help the world without helping ourselves. Likewise, it is impossible to harm others without harming ourselves.

The fourth class of speech to avoid is TRIVIAL (worthless, useless, idle). Idle chatter may seem harmless enough, but while engaging in it, opportunities to do good with Right Speech are squandered. Rather than idle banter, we could engage in kind and gentle speech, encouraging and uplifting our friends. We could also improve the world by using words that unite and foster cooperation. Our family life and work environment will also improve if we are honest, truthful, candid, and straightforward in all our dealings. Finally, our companions will appreciate conversations that are useful, helpful, valuable, practical, beneficial, and worthwhile.

Part of the practice of Right Speech is knowing when NOT to speak. Buddha expressed it this way

If it is not truthful and not helpful, don’t say it.

If it is truthful and not helpful, don’t say it.

If it is not truthful and helpful, don’t say it.

If it is truthful and helpful. . . WAIT for the right moment.

Bernard Meltzer, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Law (University of Chicago), is right at home with these Buddhist concepts, for he said, “Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.”

Also note that we can practice right or wrong speech without uttering one word. After all, only roughly 10% of communication is expressed by words. Approximately 40% is expressed by the tone of our voice, and 50% by our body language.

Take a look at this example. Dad is exhausted after a tough day at the office. He comes home, plops into his favorite easy chair and starts to read the paper. Suddenly, five-year-old Tommy comes in, pulls on his Dad’s shirt sleeve and says, “Daddy, look at the picture of a dragonfly I painted at school today.” Without removing his eyes from the newspaper, Dad reaches out with his arm, gropes around, pats his son on the head and says, “Very nice job, Tommy. I’m proud of you.”

Dad’s tone of voice was good and his choice of words was excellent, but the message Tommy received gets a failing grade. You see, Tommy could see by Dad’s body language that at this time, the newspaper was MORE IMPORTANT than him. The unspoken part of the message was the most significant, and regrettably, it was devastating to Tommy. So, despite Dad’s good tone of voice and excellent choice of words, he did NOT practice Right Speech.

Here’s something else Dad could have done. When interrupted by Tommy, Dad could have put the paper down, stood up, bent down, scooped up Tommy, lifted him up in the air, hugged and kissed him, and put him down again without saying a word. No words, yet, Dad would be practicing Right Speech, for Tommy would get the message loud and clear: Daddy loves you!

Besides Buddhists, Taoists also refer to and follow the practice of Right Speech. They believe we must be aware of our words and use them to promote harmony, while cultivating the wisdom to know when to speak and when to remain silent.

We don’t have to be a Buddhist or Taoist to benefit from their ancient wisdom. If we decide to reflect on what we say, before, during, and after speaking, we can make our words become treasured gifts to others.