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The Power of Words

  • Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.
  • Rudyard Kipling

Dr. Frank Luntz (2007) said, “You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs. It’s not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant. The key to successful communication is to take an imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener’s shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their mind and heart.”

Once you have spoken words, they are no longer yours. Other people filter them, translate them, evaluate them, and measure them through their biases, life experiences, prejudices, and world views. Words create impressions, images, and expectations. They build psychological connections between the speaker and listener.

They influence how we think. Words impose in the speaker an extra special responsibility. The speaker/writer must choose words carefully to make them appropriate for the situation.

Words have the power to affect both the physical and emotional health of people to whom we speak, for better and worse. Words used to influence are inspiring, uplifting, challenging, encouraging, motivating, and persuading. They can be visionary, they can change people’s lives for the better. Words coupled with the use of power, coercion, force, and deception, don’t just have a brief or short-term impact.

Their influence, good or bad, can last a lifetime. Verbal communication is a powerful human instrument, and we must learn to use it properly. We need to not only learn to think about speaking in new ways, but we need to learn to think about language, words, and human nature, psychology, and sociology. They are interconnected.

At the end of World War II, the Allied Powers sent a message to the Japanese demanding surrender. The Japanese responded with the word “mokusatsu,” which translates as either “to ignore” or “to withhold comment.” The Japanese meant that they wished to withhold comment, to discuss, and then decide. The Allies translated mokusatsu as the Japanese deciding to ignore the demand for surrender. The Allies ended the war by dropping the bomb and transforming the world we live in forever. The effect that words can have is incredible: to inform, persuade, inflict hurt, ease pain, end war or start one, and kill thousands or even millions of people. They can get your point across or destroy any hope of your idea ever being understood.

Poorly chosen words or speech used for personal hubris or evil can impact self-esteem, destroy morale, kill enthusiasm, inflame bias, incite hatred, lower expectations, and hold people back. They can even make people physically or mentally ill. Inappropriate words can make work and home toxic and abusive environments.

Many empirical studies show that people who live and/or work in toxic environments suffer more colds, more cases of flu, more heart attacks, more depression, more of almost all chronic disorders, physical and emotional, than people who report living or working in happy, enjoyable, caring environments. The old adage, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you” is simply bad advice.

Verbal insults and verbal abuse can affect your emotions and behavior. This is well documented in science. For example, scientists have found that just hearing sentences about senior citizens led sample subjects to walk more slowly. In other studies, researchers have observed that when students are given standardized tests and told the tests are “intelligence exams,” the average scores are from 10% to 20% lower than results from the same exam given to similar students who are told it is “just an exam.” In still other research, individuals who read words of “loving kindness” showed increases in self-compassion, improved mood, and reduced anxiety. There is information about the medicinal benefits of power verbs as well as a warning about the power of words, which, if used inappropriately, can actually make individuals physically ill.

In the study, published in Pain, researchers used functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRI) to examine how 16 healthy people processed words associated with experiencing pain. The brain scans revealed which parts of the brain activate in response to hearing words. In the first experiment, researchers asked the participants to imagine situations that correspond with words associated with pain, such as “excruciating,” “paralyzing,” and “grueling.” Researchers also asked participants to imagine situations that correspond with negative words that aren’t painful, such as “dirty” and “disgusting.”

Finally, researchers also had participants respond to neutral and positive words. In the second experiment, the participants read the same words, but they were distracted by a brainteaser. The results showed that in both cases there is a clear response in the brain’s pain-processing centers with the words associated with pain, but there is no such activity pattern in response to the other words.

The authors of the study say preserving painful experiences as memories in the brain might be an evolutionary response to allow humans to avoid painful situations that might be dangerous (Warner 2015).

On the other hand, well-chosen words or speech, for the benefit of good or hope, can motivate or inspire others to greater feats and deeds. They can offer hope, create vision, and impact thinking, beliefs, and the behaviors of others. Positive words can alter the results of strategies, plans, objectives, and even people’s lives. Positive words can uplift and encourage people and set them on a goal or path they otherwise might never have thought possible.

Power verbs express an action that is to be taken or that has been taken. A powerful verb, when used correctly, has the power to impact your life whether you are going into battle, running for president, or simply interviewing for a job.

We know that words create impressions, ideas, images, concepts, and facsimiles. Therefore, the words that we hear and read influence how we think and consequently how we behave. This means there is a correlation between the words we select and use and the results that occur. Using powerful verbal imagery helps people imagine vivid images and helps them figuratively and literally see the concepts mentioned. This was first discovered in the early twentieth century and was initially known as the Perky Effect; it was later called visual simulation. Individuals can project abstract thoughts. Almost everyone does this from time to time, but we refer to it as day dreaming.

When you day dream, you are completely awake and the eyes are wide open, yet you imagine being somewhere else, doing something else. Visual simulation impacts what people hear and how fast they respond. Cognitive psychologist Rolf Zwann has done a lot of research on the topic of how people describe objects and shapes to which they are exposed. His experiment includes showing people visuals and asking for responses and then providing audio prompts before the visual stimulation.

People are asked to describe the objects. Particularly if the subjects are prompted with words or sentences with the object beforehand, the results indicate that people respond faster because what they see and hear is mentally simulated beforehand (Bergen, 95). Many studies have confirmed that people construct visual simulations of objects they hear or read about.

People construct shape and orientation simulation. Studies show that when people listen they more often look at the set of objects that fit with the meaning of the verb, even before they hear the name of the relevant object. People make predictions about what the rest of the sentence contains as soon as words that they have already heard start to constrain what could reasonably follow. People start to cobble their understanding of the sentence incrementally (Bergen, 125).

Grammar helps get the visual simulation going by pulling together all the pieces contributed by the words in the correct configuration. People more easily and clearly comprehend your meaning if you have structured your sentence correctly. One particular form is the transitive sentence. It has a transfer of possession meaning. Transitive sentences start with a noun or noun phrase, are followed by a verb, and then have one or two noun phrases. The following is an example:

  • The outgoing CEO kicked the problem down the road to the new CEO.

If we use the intended transfer definition, the transitive sentence describes an intended transfer of an object to a recipient, and naturally the recipient must be capable of receiving something (Bergen, 106). Words we use can even be impacted by our background and other influences.

Consider the words buy and invest. If you are selling life insurance, you want the customer to buy, but in your mind the purchase is a long-term investment. The premiums get invested, the face value of the policy grows, there is eventually a loan value, and the investment appreciates beyond the purchase price. However the customer thinks in terms of buying and how much it costs. The issue comes full circle again if the customer does buy and if he wants the insurance company to make good investments.

Nan Russell, President of Mountain Works Communications, an employee training firm, introduces this word choice: problem or challenge. Would you rather your boss see your mistake as a problem or a challenge? Is it just semantics? Problems are things that need to be fixed; challenges are met. Different words evoke a different set of emotions and feelings. People usually have a much more positive feeling about “meeting a challenge” than “fixing a problem.”

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