The Power of Words

[This is a post written by Suzi McAlpine who is an executive coach and the Director of McAlpine Coaching. As a leadership development specialist, Suzi works alongside CEOs and senior leaders throughout New Zealand to harness their full potential and achieve maximum results. Suzi is also the author of The Leader’s Digest blog, providing free leadership tips and insights for busy executives, supporting the journey to great leadership.]

A little while ago, a very talented and normally compassionate and considered client absently referred to his team as “idiots.”

In our coaching sessions, I had begun to notice him talk about his team in a somewhat derogatory manner. And although I empathised with his frustration at their current performance, as his coach, I knew I needed to raise this growing trend around his language about them – with him.

When I did, he was shocked. And then a little sheepish. This had not been his intention and he was surprised at the power of his words. He had not always referred to them in this manner, but recently his frustration with the situation (and with them) had grown.

As his exasperation developed, his language he used to discuss them changed, ever so surreptitiously. His words were impacting him, how he viewed his team’s potential and others in the organisation. It was a ‘catch 22’ situation and a fulfilling prophecy.

Luckily he hadn’t called them idiots to their face! But this fact was almost irrelevant.

After some thought, he decided to try and look for the positive and to speak and think about them in a more positive way. In a manner which reflected their potential – even if they were not demonstrating it at that particular moment.

It got me thinking about the power of words.

I have such a strong aversion to the child nursery rhyme which says “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” That most definitely ‘aint the truth!

Our words have enormous power. And when the shadow we cast is bigger than others (such as when we are in a position of authority), our words can wield nothing short of colossal clout.

Consider the imperceptible yet powerful difference between the words ‘discriminate’ and ‘distinguish’. Or ‘deadline’’ and ‘due date’. Or ‘staff’ and ‘team’. Or ‘failure’ and ‘learning’.

And notice what happens when you praise someone immediately followed by the word BUT. You may as well have said nothing which preceded that little three letter word, such is its power to deflate.

Even jargon can be potent in its impact, especially when used to wield power. How often have you felt intimidated by lawyers, doctors or external expert consultants who provide an argument loaded with jargon and appeal to obscure results, so that you are simply obliged to accept it, or risk asking a “stupid question”?

The power of words also becomes painfully prevalent when you join a new industry that’s loaded with acronyms you can’t begin to understand.

When my husband joined the fishing industry, he had to contend with TACC (total allowable commercial catch), Danish seining ( a fishing method) and fish block (as it sounds, a whole lot of fish pressed together into a block), all in his first day (after two years he spouts out those same words as if fluent in this strange fishy second language!)

The culture of an organisation is a veritable treasure trove of how words have a huge impact. Have a look at your company values, the oft spoken words, and colloquialisms. It will give you a strong idea about what is valued.

What’s the moral of this story?

Choose your words carefully. Notice the language you use. Notice the impact they have on others.

How can you use words to demonstrate your values, your passion, and your belief in your people?

How can you use your words as a leader to do more good than harm?

I can’t think of a more powerful demonstration of the power of words than this 2 minute clip.

Watch it.

It’s not ‘alright’. It’s “awesome”.

Question: How have you seen the power of words, positive or negative, used by a leader?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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18 thoughts on “The Power of Words

  1. I tend to be positive with the people that work for me and in fact know that we work as a team, and they do too, but this reminder is powerful and shows that there probably aren’t any of us who can’t improve. Thanks for the encouragement and video. Yeah, it was awesome…

  2. Thank you Suzi for a good post. I try really hard to be positive and encouraging. I try to build the other staff members (secretary and youth pastor) up in front of the whole congregation and remind them how important those two are to the life of the church. Also want to thank you for the video. I had seen it some time ago but had forgotten it.

  3. I really noticed the power of encouragement while working with my youngest son with math. He was really struggling, but speaking positively over his life working with him and telling him he can do it has really impacted his learning. Words have the power to build up or tear down, encourage or discourage, strengthen or weaken. Our words definitely have power.

  4. My youngest son’s last football coach was not a good leader. It wasn’t a lack of knowledge; he actually knew the game well and had good skills. The problem was his constant whining and yelling at the kids. They felt constantly defeated and clearly finished the season not wanting to do their best. His attitude toward the kids, both in games and in practices, had a huge impact on their performance. I actually focused on the topic of “words” on my blog in January because I personally needed to revamp some areas of not only what I said but how I said it. Looking in detail at this topic really helped, and your post gives another great view from the impact of a leader. As one of my commenters said, this is a topic that could be focused on for the whole year. I agree. It’s not only got that much we could discuss, but it’s that important.

    • I agree, it’s a topic that can be focused on for a long time and even turned into a book. Attitude really is a huge difference maker when it comes to every area of our life. Thank you for sharing an example and being a positive influence to your child.

  5. What your post and the associate video show me is that even changing a single word can make a difference. My “bluntness” isn’t always received well. In fact, it can be a deterrent to healthy relationships. A little bit-o-honey goes a long ways.

  6. You can definitely feel the power of words from leaders – good, bad, and indifferent. I’ve witnessed organizations get a completely different energy level based upon the language from leaders, from apathy to excitement and caring.

  7. Yes. Just yes. I talk about word choice a lot when I’m going over people’s writing. They ask for constructive feedback and when I tell them to be a little more choosey with their words, they are often surprised. Honestly they use some highly negative word choice when they actually don’t intend to be negative at all.

    There’s a link between the words we use and how we interact with the world. Not just with other people, but with ourselves. That example you give about “failure” vs “learning” is perfect. Call a mistake a lesson and it seems positive. Call it a failure and you feel bad about it.

    • Great additional thoughts, it’s amazing how the words we use can either show positivity or negativity, it’s the wording and how we say it that really matters. Thank you for adding to the discussion.