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The Power of Language

The Power of Language

Language. It’s the preferred method of communication in our culture — the fuel we use to empower our desires, and to direct and align our energy. Language has immense power, and its impact depends entirely on how we wield it.

Because words are so often used automatically and unconsciously, we have learned to treat them lightly. In daily conversation, we speak the majority of our words from habit, convenience and social obligation rather than from clear intent.

If we realized the potential that language has to create and transform our lives, we would pay a great deal more attention to our utterances. We’d be as determined to get our language “in shape” as we are to master and hone our bodies.

Whether or not we realize it, we are constantly using language to evolve our ideas and beliefs into concrete reality. By becoming more aware of the impact and power of language, we can make more conscious, insightful choices about how we express ourselves and how we interpret others. Consider, for example . . .

The Power of “I”
“I” is a super-charged word. When you say, “I am,” the words that follow speak volumes — to yourself and others — about how you define yourself.

“I have, I choose, I love, I enjoy, I can, I will” are also words of strong intent. When we feel powerful, we naturally employ these kinds of “I” statements. When we feel less powerful or fear that our power will create conflict, we tend to water down our words, either by avoiding “I,” by saying “I don’t know” or “I am not sure,” or by following “I” with other ambivalent, unclear statements.

“I think I can,” for example, doesn’t have much power compared with “I know I can” or “I can” or “I will.” Neither does “I guess so” — a red flag to your listener that even if you agree to something, your heart will not be in it. “I can’t” is a strong statement of victimization, implying that circumstances outside of your control are running things, and you have no power to change them.

Another common phrase — “I want” — tends to distance us from the things we yearn for rather than bringing them closer. “Want” means “to desire without having.” So, by establishing ourselves in a state of “want,” we set ourselves up to forever pine for something we accept as out of reach.

Substituting “I have” for “I want” is a good way of projecting ourselves mentally into the realm of having and can also make us aware of all the unconscious reasons why we do not yet have the thing we are wanting. Practice using “I have” or “I choose” instead of “I want” and see what kinds of reactions you observe in yourself.

Manipulation and Coercion
So much of the way we present our ideas has to do with what we expect in return. If we are afraid our idea or request will be rejected, we may use language that is confusing and indirect. In this way, we have a chance of “snaring” someone into agreeing they don’t quite understand.

For example, rather than saying “I would like some help organizing my studio on Saturday — would you be willing to help me?” we might say, “What are you doing on Saturday?” After finding out our listener isn’t busy, we might sigh, “I just feel so overwhelmed by my life these days. I have so much to do and not time to do it, and I am just sick of struggling to do everything by myself.”

Eager to stop this flow of despair, our friends may “offer” to help, yet some part of them may be resentful that they were not presented a clear request and the opportunity to make a straightforward choice.

Using language to manipulate is costly in terms of energy. Using direct and honest language frees up that energy to be more playful and present with those you love. Practice asking for what you need in a more direct manner. You may be surprised at the level of fun and enthusiasm that returns to your relationships.

Vagueness and Ambivalence
When we utter committed and direct statements, we know we will be expected to follow through on them. So we sometimes devise very subtle ways of sending messages about whether we are really willing to do what we say, or whether our listener can expect us to bail out of our agreements.

“I’ll try” is a perfect example. If I tell someone “I’ll try,” I may be subtly sending the message that I have given myself a choice about completion, or that it won’t be my fault if I don’t get it done. Essentially, this phrase tells your listener that you are giving yourself permission to fail. It may also be a covert way of guilt-tripping your listener into accepting a less-than-wholehearted commitment or an eventual refusal.

“I’ll try” can also be designed to let someone know you have the power to either withhold your consent of “graciously” bestow it. “I’ll try” may come out when we are looking for recognition that we consent to share our precious energy and time, and that our effort is worthy of appreciation. It may also signal that we are overwhelmed but still willing to make room for the request.

On the other hand, in some cases “I’ll try” is fair warning that a person will not try. So how can we tell what someone means when they say “I’ll try” or “I guess” (or that mother of all ambivalencies: “whatever”)? Words and phrases mean different things to different people. Depending on our own filters and circumstances, we may hear any of these words as eager, open, resentful or downright hostile, and in fact their intent can vary enormously from speaker to speaker.

When in doubt, your best option is to ask for clarification. You can also try the “active listening method,” in which you play back to the speaker what you’ve interpreted from her communication, even if that understanding is vague: “So what I hear you saying is that you may not make it on Monday.” Whether she corrects or confirms your impression, you have a better idea of where she stands.

If you find yourself speaking with vague and general language, take a moment to ask yourself how you can get your message across simply, directly and with conviction. If you are afraid of offending someone or appearing hard or challenging, you may be unconsciously diffusing your words to be more acceptable to others. Do some soul-searching to assess whether your need to be accepted is overriding your ability to own your ideas and assert your own power.

Verbal Runoff
Generally, the more words you use to say something, the less power those words have. Feel the difference between a 12-word sentence and a five-word sentence. Practice using as few words as possible to get your message across. People who ramble, or who just like to hear themselves speak, get boring very quickly. If you find yourself in a conversational lull or realize you have nothing to say, graciously accept the silence, simply listening to it and to whatever comes next.

As you become more comfortable with silence, more comfortable being powerful and more conscious of your word choices, your language will reflect your increased conviction and commitment. When you no longer waste words by using them as “filler,” the words you do speak will have more power behind them. Be willing to speak your desired outcomes and state what is true to you. You will quickly discover what a powerful and transformative ally language can be.

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit www.experiencelifemag.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter.

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By Cat Thompson, Experience Life

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Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

18 comments

+ add your own
2:05AM PST on Jan 10, 2012

Thanks.

3:14AM PST on Feb 12, 2010

I read the original Atlantic article when it came out, but the book. I’ve always liked her writing and thought she made a pretty good case. There were a ton of letters in the following issue taking her to task, kind of like the dead-tree version of a blog war.

r4 software

6:54PM PDT on Sep 3, 2009

wait.. I kinda contradicted myself there...
I meant that people who generally use short sentences generally use the same dull language over and over again. But those who speak longer sentences are actually putting in an effort to convey the most specific thoughts to you (usually when the exact words escape them).

Maybe its just me, but this article kinda reminded me of what "they" do to language in '1984'.

6:48PM PDT on Sep 3, 2009

I agree with Elizabeth. I prefer having conversations with people who have longer or slower sentences; it means they are looking for the right words to most specify their meaning which means they are fully engaged in the subject at hand. That's why we have so many words in our language, to be able to be as specific as possible.
I hate listening to people who speak in short direct sentences; there's little imagination or thought being put into the conversation. Boring.

1:01PM PDT on Aug 30, 2009

I'm not so sure it's the number of words used which seep power from a sentence. When speaking, I stop to think to find the most exact words I know. Most listeners attend more when the message is spoken slowly and thoughtfully. This shows the speaker cares. The interaction means more.
I liked this language article, but wish, next time, we could discuss language, humour and play...

7:54AM PDT on Aug 24, 2009

Good post! Crafting what we say to reflect what we actually mean vs. blurting things thoughtlessly is good exercise for the brain! I'd like to respond with a KIND comment on Chris B's words: "Also, when posting, realize that we're not all as intelligent as you, and we may not have access to a thesaurus. Generally, if I have to hit the dictionary 3 times, I move on to another post!" Chris - if you are online and using a computer, you DO have access to a thesaurus (and a dictionary) with a simple click or two! Every word looked up is another word learned - and a powerful addition to the tools you've accumulated over a lifetime to creatively express yourself. Why wouldn't we challenge ourselves to continue learning as much as possible? It's not a question of intelligence at all - it's more a measure of one's desire to learn new things. I believe we should write and express ourselves using the full intelligence God has gifted us with... and not feel as though we should 'dumb down' how we express ourselves, especially if we work hard at and put the time into being able to communicate intelligently. :-)

6:54AM PDT on Aug 24, 2009

Thanks Sheila, it nice hearing that you read something that made you reflect.

A brief reasoning behind the spelling "G-d".

"G-d" "We are not the first to make this change. To recognize the word dog in the reverse reading ef the Name is distasteful. Many Jews agree. We favor such Jewish sentiments and share the concern." Imam W.D. Mohammed 9-30-98

4:54AM PDT on Aug 24, 2009

Come on, if you want to say god then say GOD! Why are you censoring yourself? God is not a naughty word. Or are you supposed to not say God? I'm confused. But, aside from that, it feels good to see someone that was inspired and the comment made me have a quiet moment to reflect, so thank you.

4:07AM PDT on Aug 24, 2009

part 5 -

Allah speaks to you with extremes and He begins shaking you up inside, making the atoms of your being quicken and come into .activity. The Creator does this so that your mind will begin turning over to try to understand the message that G-d is trying to give you through your physical eyes, ears and flesh. The Book says that G-d is trying to say to you that this is only the beginning of a marvelous creation and that He is only water­ing, plowing and stirring up the ground of your being. G-d does this so that He can cause that seed that He has divinely put in the human being to burst forth, allowing His real man to take form in the flesh.

4:05AM PDT on Aug 24, 2009

part - 4

G-D'S PICTURE LANGUAGE

The ancient wise people used pictures of things in creation to describe abstract ideas and concepts. We know that picture language is a good way to get ideas over to people who are not acquainted with the language of abstract ideas or abstract things. When you take abstract ideas and concepts and- complicated descriptions and explanations and give them to the people in picture language, they can grasp those ideas. Long ago the teachers discovered that G-d the Creator, not G-d in man, is the best of teachers, and the Creator taught the man first with pictures.

When you open your eyes to this physical world, you see physical pictures. Before you can learn the language of your mother and your father, you have already begun reading some of the language of Almighty G-d. G-d's language has already begun to create you in your body before your mother and your father can reach you because they do not have power to reach you before G-d reaches your mind. Allah does not make you in your parents' image, He makes you in the image that He chooses for you. Your parents cannot speak to you when you first come from the womb, but G-d begins to speak to you. He shows you the light outside and He contrasts and shows you the darkness. He lets you experience quiet in the womb of your mother for nine months, then G-d throws you into a noisy world and He speaks to your mind with noise. Allah speaks to you with extremes and He begins shaking you up inside, ma

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OH YES!!!! That super adorable kitty stole all my attention!!! But the article is very helpful. …

I'll try it once the tear in my meniscus has healed. Right now it would be excruciating!

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