The Weight of Your Words: a Thoughtful Approach to Communicating in the Workplace

Woman speaking into a megaphone

"In every encounter we either give life or we drain it; there is no neutral exchange." -Brennan Manning

How many words do you speak in a day? More importantly, are you aware of their great impact on yourself and those around you? As the quote above states, the words we speak do one of two things; they either infuse life or drain it. Names -despite the "sticks and stones" verse's claim- do hurt people. That said, while words can be one of the deadliest weapons one can wield, they also can be used as a balm to inspire, liberate, encourage and heal.

How can you use language in your team and beyond to create a better, healthier work environment?

1 - Mind Your Thoughts

Where do words come from? Why do we find it so hard to control what we say? Thoughts. Every word that you utter comes from a thought you've had or an opinion you've formed. Often influenced by external factors, our thoughts take shape internally and influence more than just the words we speak. They also determine feelings and affect our perception of reality, sometimes to the exclusion of valid points that don't fit within our frame of reference or gameplan. For instance, the way we feel about something may color the tone of voice we use when addressing a given topic, particularly if that feeling is irrational or based upon incomplete or incorrect information. Where information is lacking, we tend to fill in the gaps, telling ourselves stories and creating problems where there are none. When we learn what the facts are, we have a choice between believing the story we're telling ourselves or believing the truth.

Ultimately, how you respond comes down to the condition of your heart and the thoughts it stores. If you harbor bitterness toward a person, group, concept or topic, it will be harder for you to engage in fruitful discussions surrounding them simply because your negative feelings and or prejudices, if not evaluated objectively, can interfere with the truth. Recognizing how you think about something or someone before you attempt to speak is needful to make progress in this area. Additionally, acknowledging where you stand in relation to the truth will help you steer your communication in the right direction.

2 - Think of Others First

Not every thought need be spoken, and certainly shouldn't be, but so many of us struggle with saying the wrong thing and then quickly regretting it. Why is this? As the only species gifted with language and the ability to communicate through words, we blurt out things that hurt people, usually wishing we could take our poor word choices back. The appropriate course of action ought to be speaking the truth with kindness or graciously withholding comment. Always think about how your words might be interpreted by someone else before saying them.

As we've discussed earlier, perception is reality for most people. In the spirit of working toward positive change, budget time to reflect on whether judgments you have formed are based upon facts or feelings. If you are working with facts, you'll be able to address whatever it is calmly and rationally. While feelings may appear to trump facts, we know this to be illogical and in turn, unjust. Facts provide you with a solid foundation whereas feelings are subjective and can change on a whim. This isn't to say that feelings don't matter; they just don't change the facts. Before calling that meeting or reaming someone out, remember that you are moving toward someone with words that are either life giving or life draining. Treat others as you want to be treated to engage in a friendly, productive fashion.

3 - Speak With Care

What would you want to hear? How do you want others to approach you? Before going over to that certain someone, spend time rehearsing how your words will come across. Don't let the first time you say what you need to say be during the discussion itself. Make sure you are coming from a place of wanting to help. Be a bridge builder. Your tone of voice, body language and word choices all speak volumes. To the best of your ability, say what you need to say in the manner you intend to be understood.

Use positive language and speak in a way that is edifying and uplifting to your hearers. Avoid words like "but," "however" and accusatory "You" statements. The word "but" could be interpreted as your discrediting their views resulting in the other person retreating emotionally or responding defensively. Take ownership over your words and how you present them. Create space for a two-way conversation, not a lecture. If you've gone through the two exercises above, as in identifying thought patterns and determining fact from feelings (and indeed, fact from fiction), expressing yourself and your thoughts clearly will be easier and far more diplomatic.

Using gentle, encouraging and affirming language will go so much further regarding your conversations and your relationships at work, serving customers and when living your daily life. In the words of hip hop artist, TobyMac, choose to "speak life." When you speak life-giving words, instead of life-draining ones, hopeful words instead of doom and gloom, loving words instead of ones that cause strife, notice and be amazed as the words you say help the people around you come alive.