Words That Wound and Heal

By Stephen Hager

On Wednesday, January 13, 2011, President Obama addressed a memorial service for those killed and injured during a mass shooting in Arizona. The President urged Americans to “make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” This statement is a wake-up call to think deeper about the manner in which we communicate with one another. You may be surprised to learn who the first injured person is from “wounding words.” What is your strategy when you are on the receiving end of unkind, harsh and unpleasant words? Practical neuroscience provides strategies on how to communicate with “healing words” and what to do when in a “wounding word” environment. Imagine what daily life would be like if you and the people with whom you associate communicated in kinder and more respectful ways.

Examples
Wounding Words:

  • I hate you
  • You’re stupid
  • You’re wrong
  • You’re worthless

The list is deliberately short. How do you feel when you see these and related words in print, say them aloud or hear someone else speak them? Do these words and the thoughts behind them have any enduring value? Do they build good will, self worth and esteem? Are they good and decent foundational language for healthy long-term relationships?

Healing Words:

  • I love you
  • I appreciate you
  • Thank you
  • Please
  • You’re welcome
  • I forgive you
  • Forgive me
  • I am sorry
  • I can see you’re in pain
  • May I express my feelings and thoughts?
  • Help me understand your point of view
  • How can we coexist peacefully with different points of view?
  • These are the things I value about you
  • May I help you?

The litmus test for “healing words” is how they make you (and others) react, respond and feel. Is the experience positive, uplifting and respectful? Do they help you feel safe, valued and cared about? Are you in a better place?

Neuroscience Principles of Words

1. Words are symbols that create meaning
Words are symbols of ideas that communicate information and help us navigate life. The environment and circumstances in which we learned language strongly affects meaning and the way we respond when we see and hear specific words. Various people may react differently to the same word because it carries different meaning for each of them.

2. Words create emotions and feelings
Your brain creates feelings and emotional responses to thoughts, words, and experiential situations. These reactions range from barely discernable to extremely strong, depending on the conditions when your memories were built. Interestingly, people tend to “feel words” after thinking about them, saying/hearing them or seeing them visually.

3. Words impact the orator and the audience
How often do we think about the impact of our thoughts and words on our own well being or the well being of others? The person thinking or saying words that wound or heal will be the first to experience the effect. The words we speak aloud or communicate visually affect us as well as our audience. Therefore, intentions and selection of words have positive or negative impact on all parties.

Strategies

There are neuroscience strategies for transmitting and receiving communications to help assure positive outcomes and protect oneself against “wounding words.”
For “transmitters” of words:

What are your desired outcomes?
Think about the purpose of your communication and the outcomes you want. Do all parties benefit or is the situation one sided? Does the purpose involve providing useful information, teaching, sharing points of view, giving instructions, making a decision or solving a problem? Will people be uplifted, feel safe and experience an improvement in quality of life?

How will you deliver your message?
Will you use healing or wounding words? Think about the state of mind, receptivity and culture of your audience. What is your mental, emotional and physical condition to craft and deliver the words by auditory and visual means? It’s best to be in top form, because your physical, mental and emotional state is projected into the audience experience.

Use your head and heart
Use your head to think about your desired outcomes and how you will deliver your message. Imagine speaking through your heart, using it as the transmitter to deliver kind, caring and polite messages. When communicating from your heart, you may be surprised by the reaction from your audience as well as by what you experience.

For “receivers” of words:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me”
This well known expression contains great wisdom. How can words really harm us? It’s our emotional response and interpretation that give us a wounding or healing experience. When in a “wounding word” situation, say this quote aloud and think about the principles behind it. Refrain from retaliating with an attack because you will hurt yourself and others. Try thinking “healing thoughts” and using “healing words” to neutralize the situation.

Trust tone of voice and body language more than the words
Pay attention to people’s tone of voice and body language. They convey a person’s state of mind and possible intentions. An angry tone, profanity, facial and body tension will tend to wound regardless of the words. A calm and caring voice, using the person’s name, respectful manners and comfortable eye contact will create a healing environment, assuming the words are congruent.

In conclusion, using “healing words” is a choice leading to positive outcomes for all parties. When in a hostile environment, fraught with wounding words, defuse the situation with “healing thoughts and words.” Consider role modeling and teaching the principles and practices of “healing words” to people you trust, who are interested in making positive changes in the world.

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