Communication: Part II The Power of Language
John Kennedy inspired a nation with his declaration that the USA would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Martin Luther King’s, “I have a dream” speech galvanized a movement that still lives today. Hitler’s blaming Jews and other marginalized people for Germany’s economic issues, led to the murder of over 6 million people.
The language we use makes a difference. Let’s take a personal look at how we, you and I, use and misuse language. Clearly the language we use is impactful, whether to support, inspire, clarify, and take responsibility, or it can be used to project our fears, beliefs, opinions and blame. I suggest that our highly polarized country is the result of not merely conflicting values, but just as importantly, ineffective communication.
One significant problem occurs when people make statements or claims without taking responsibility for its source. For example, if I say, “ The world is flat, ” that is very different from , “I think the world is flat,” Or, “I read on the internet the world is flat.” The first example makes a declarative statement that implies and is often interpreted by the listener as fact or truth. Whereas the latter examples are personal statements that are expressed as opinion, that can initiate some curiosity and discussion about what led the speaker to that statement and or the source of their information.
It is more necessary than ever for us to be responsible for our words and language, as the political and racial debates and arguments rage in our country creating polarized camps. The current White House has even coined the term, “alternative facts”, as if there could be multiple opposing facts. I believe there can be opposing opinions, beliefs, and interpretations, but facts are facts. In the news media, and in my many conversations with people on my travels, I have repeatedly heard people stating their political views, opinions and beliefs as if they were facts.
Meanwhile, the media has shifted from reporting the news with a commitment to ethics, impartiality, researching for the truth and integrity, to now filling the airwaves with interpretations, biassed opinions, and beliefs as if they were facts.
How do we take responsibility for our communications? Simply put, state whether it is: your opinion, your belief, your story or assumption and own it as such, and not as truth. One of the four agreements in Don Miguel Ruiz’ Book by the same name, is, Don’t make assumptions, because the problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. Secondly, check out your story with the other person to see what is real and what is made up in your head.
For example, on one of my wilderness canoe trips, during dinner, I perceived one man as cold and snarky towards me. I made up a story that he was angry with me about a decision I had made earlier that day as the trip leader. I had a whole story in my head as I put together data from the day that supported my story, I was absolutely convinced my story was the truth. After dinner I approached that man and told him I had a story I wanted to check out with him. He proceeded to tell me what was going on for him, which had nothing to do with me or any decision I had made. I not only made an assumption, I had taken his behavior personally- another of Ruiz’ four agreements- Don’t take things personally. Our interaction was open, clarifying and heartfelt which left us both clear and connected. Had I not checked out my story, it could have led me to resenting and judging him. Taking things personally sets you up to suffer, as Ruiz states, “There is a huge amount of freedom when you take nothing personally.”
I believe at the very core of the divisiveness in our country right now , to steal a line from one of my favorite movies, Cool Hand Luke, is, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” When we claim our opinions and interpretations as facts or truth, others will want to defend their positions with their “truths” which creates an argument not a discussion. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”
I’ve heard claims such as: Obama was the worst president ever , Trump is the worst president ever, The BLM organization is out to kill policemen…each stated with such conviction, as if it was the absolute truth. I will often attempt to bring some curiosity to conversations by asking the person, “How they come to that particular conclusion?” and “ Where did they they get their information?” Often they can’t support their opinions with grounded facts. As a former middle school educator, we had to spend a significant amount of time teaching students while researching to verify their sources and claims- “It was on the internet”, is not valid support.
Two powerful sources I value for addressing effective communication are: Landmark Education, where language distinctions including being responsible for one's language and effective communication are unpacked, and the book- The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz.
I seek to be impeccable with my word- the first of Ruiz’ Four Agreements, so I bring clarity, ownership, and curiosity to my communications. Furthermore, I strive to not make assumptions, by owning and checking out my stories, and to not take what others do or say personally. This is part of my personal work, not easy, yet makes a difference.
It is far easier to be “right” than to be responsible and effective in your communications. Consider your goal : To be right or to be engaged? Righteousness will often lead to diminished connection and increased conflict, while curiosity and ownership of the language and words you use is more likely to create, understanding and connection.
What story have you made up about your spouse, friend, family member that you will check out? Identify a person or situation that often triggers you, and make a commitment to not take it personally. How will you bring more curiosity rather than declarative statements to challenging topics, such as politics, racism, sex…?
My intention with these questions is to inspire you to think, while taking action, as that’s where transformation happens!
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