Words Matter.

“I used the wrong words in the wrong way.”  — Congressman Todd Akin

Wow, did he ever.

I’m not here to rehash this week’s events starring Congressman Akin – that’s been done enough. What I want to focus on is how our word choices matter, whether we’re in the public eye or not.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

These words from Henry Ford speak to the importance of our language, even when it’s only the conversations we have with ourselves.

The book Language and the Pursuit of Happiness by the Chalmers Brothers describes language as a “tool we cannot put down. We are always “in language” – it is impossible for us not to be.”

They go on to say:  “language is naturally generative and creative.” To me, this phrase means that we have the power to create our own realities in every moment – and to influence the realities of those around us as well. Personally, I find that empowering and a bit frightening too. We all can think of times in our lives when the right words, spoken by a leader or a loved one or even a stranger, have made all the difference. Words can clarify things, lift us up, calm us down. And as Congressman Akin reminded us, the wrong words can create firestorms.

Find and Replace

As an English major and a certified coach, I love listening to language, and “mirroring” to clients how they describe themselves, situations, others. They are often surprised by their word choices, and how powerful small changes can be. I’ve captured below three favorite word choices that have made a difference for me and for many clients too.

#1 – AND rather than BUT. By definition, the word “but” is used “to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned.” In other words, it negates anything that precedes it, which is fine if that’s your intention. Frequently, it isn’t.

  • “That’s a great idea, but we don’t have it in the budget. “
  • “I appreciate your offer to help, but I need someone who has this specific skill for that project.”
  • “I’d love to come, but I already have plans for that night.”

Now, replace the “but” in those sentences with the word “and.” What “and” does is support both sides of the statements – it makes them both equally true. Pretty cool, huh?

#2 – GET TO versus HAVE TO – this is one of my all-time favorites. Yes, being an adult or a parent or an employee comes with obligation. And yet, the words we use to describe our daily lives set the tone for whether we approach tasks with our feet dragging or with enthusiasm. Most of us use “have to” as a habit. Check it out:

  • “I have to go to work today.”
  • “I have to go pick up the kids.”
  • “I have to go to the grocery store.”

Egads. How burdensome is all that? Now, play the replacement game. Exchange “have to” with “get to” in those sentences. What’s that feel like? That switch makes me realize how plaintive I often sound when in fact, I really am grateful for the things I “have” to do. (I even played this game during jury duty recently. Yes, that was hard! Yet it reminded me of lucky I am to be an American citizen.)

#3 – Any action verb instead of the word trying – the word “trying” as an adjective means “difficult or annoying; hard to endure.” As a verb, it shifts the emphasis from an actual action to merely the attempt at the action. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking effort itself. Just the language we use to describe our efforts:

  • “I am trying to establish a new workout regime” versus “I am establishing a new workout regime.”
  • “I am trying to figure out this situation” versus “I am figuring this out.”

Hear the difference? Which one makes you feel more empowered, more active? Most of us have a hidden assumption that we have to be “done” or have mastered something before we’re done “trying.” I say otherwise.

What other word choices have made a difference for you? Let me know the results of your own “find and replace” game!

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