If you really think about it, these past few weeks have opened a window on the importance of our choice of words. On the one hand, millions of Americans and Canadians once again stood in awe at the power of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech" some 50 years ago. His choice of words mobilized society and served to positively change both nations.
On the other hand, Manitobans have been quickly mobilized against Deputy Premier Eric Robinson, whose choice of words landed him in the spotlight for his "do-good white people" comment found hidden in an intergovernmental email. Since then, accusations of racism have been flying fast and furious as more and more people have waded into the debate.
Yet, the power of these words has not diminished, even with the help of public relations gurus who have attempted to smooth the rough waters of this controversy.
No matter which side of the controversy readers take, this situation is a good lesson for all of us. You better believe it, there's power in our words. Words have the power to mobilize for good or for evil. Words are known to ruin all types of relationships. And as we see on the world stage, words can even lead us to the brink of war.
Overall, how we use words has been getting a lot more attention in society and the workplace than in years past. In fact, the old saying, "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me," has been proven time and time again to be totally erroneous. While I'm sure the original lesson was to encourage us to turn the other cheek and ignore hurtful comments, when words get to the point of verbal abuse and racial slurs, then enough is enough -- tempers flare, conflict arises and feelings are hurt.
However, now we have accepted words are indeed powerful, to be honest, I'm still not confident our general population pays sufficient attention to the power of what they say or how they say it. And, since most of us don't have a public relations specialist at hand, paying attention to our vocabulary and our expressions and learning how to communicate more effectively is critical to our ongoing success in all aspects of life. So where does one start?
I'm confident the following tips will help to refocus and improve your communication skills.
Check your attitude -- Good communicators have a positive life attitude and believe everyone is equal no matter their colour, racial origin, or opinion, for that matter. A positive self-attitude helps to prevent blurting out comments listeners or readers experience as personal "put-me-downs" and/or racial slurs.
Think before you speak/write -- Thinking through the goals and objectives of a communication, be it a brief sentence or a long paragraph, ensures off-hand, spurious comments are avoided. Examine who the audience is, what the issue is and what the sensitivities are before responding. Believe me, more careers have been damaged by "off the cuff" comments than anything else.
Confirm your environment -- Language is an important key to successfully persuading others, communicating intentions and controlling one's environment. This means you must be careful, because what is appropriate and what is effective in a business environment may not be effective in a casual environment. You need to know the difference and communicate accordingly.
Choose vocabulary wisely -- You may not realize it, but your vocabulary actually becomes your identity. Too many sophisticated multisyllabic words don't impress people; instead, you create an image of arrogance that makes others feel less important. On the other hand, too many colloquialisms and especially foul language will cause people to discount your comments and eventually avoid you altogether. Choose the right words for the right situation and choose them carefully.
Avoid labelling others -- Generalizing and labelling others is known as twisted thinking that in turn only serves to create a featureless "other" or "them" upon which people can fling arrows of blame. Labelling behaviour undoubtedly leads to prejudice and discrimination.
Avoid jargon -- Every business and organization has its own abbreviations and jargon and that's where these should stay. To use this terminology in a less formal, personal situation only serves to create misunderstanding and/or no understanding at all. People will feel left out and alienated, as well as irritated, and your credibility will deteriorate.
Avoid vague words or phrases -- Common words such as "always," "never," "almost," and "all" are considered to be vague words that have no value and can result in misinformation. In some cases, a sinister reader might twist your information while others will question your facts. Support what you say with concrete evidence rather than opinion.
Change your questions -- Change your internal questions from asking who is at fault and/or what mistake you made to focusing questions on what the other person is thinking and feeling. Ask what assumptions you are making, what facts support the situation, what's best to do to resolve the situation and what you have learned.
Handle criticism effectively -- Criticism is often experienced as blame and judgment that in turn makes you feel like a victim. Rather than responding to criticism in a passive or aggressive manner, recognize the individual's frame of mind and respond in a straightforward manner rather than being defensive. Schedule a face-to-face meeting to straighten things out.
What you say stays! -- Beware that today more than ever, what you write and what you say is now available more permanently through so many different channels. Your poorly chosen words can "go viral" within minutes and will be impossible to take back. Your comments and your reputation will be "out there" in cyberspace waiting for someone to raise them up and throw them back in your face when you least expect it.
As many individuals, including government officials, are finding out these days, vocabulary, tone of voice and choice of words are becoming increasingly important in a world of Internet communication. While at one time individuals could develop and manage their professional image through simple strategies such as dress for success backed by a good vocabulary and education, success today requires much more strategy, caution and personal oversight of every element of one's behaviour and communication.
As is clearly evident by the 50th celebration of King's freedom speech and the current "war of words" controversy caused by Robinson, words do indeed have immense power and a power that can last for years. This suggests every individual needs to deliberately "manage" his or her choice of words every minute of the day. It means being careful with one's vocabulary no matter what communication medium is used.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org