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Last week we quoted the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. As is the case with many slogans, this one is only a half-truth.
Words may not cause physical harm, but they can and do inflict considerable pain and influence on others. Sometimes words can cascade into our future and become self-fulfiling prophecies, especially if these words are repeated often enough.
Fortunately, in terms of universal realities, the opposite is also true: positive words can have a profound effect on us and others around us.
I know of people who carry with them a list of positive affirmations. In this manner they continually boost their confidence with carefully chosen words.
Constantly reading positive literature tends to strengthen our faith in universal values. Spiritual giants are often passionate about written sources of spiritual values, such as scriptures, and they will feast upon these positive words daily. We all need positive words.
Almost without exception we find that in interviews with top leaders and performers they tell about the deep-rooted influence of the words of parents, close relatives or other sources, such as teachers, from early youth.
Let me tell you about James, a young career army officer and family friend. I asked him once why he became an army officer.
He told me that he cannot recall the precise reason for his early childhood ambition to be a soldier, with the exception of one occurrence that stands out in his mind.
When he was about four, his father left him and his mother. As he was leaving the house, he hugged James and told him: “I want you to be a good soldier now.”
He obviously meant that James must be brave about losing his dad, yet the young boy understood the words literally. He became a professional soldier.
Years ago I was a young factory manager, barely in my twenties, eventually responsible for more than 100 workers in Cape Town.
I was very inexperienced, but willing, and, after a few years on the job, I asked my boss’s wife, who was an active director of the company, what I could do to improve my performance.
She told me that I was a perfect manager and that I had the ability to somehow do the right thing, even when her husband, the boss, sometimes told me to do something that was not thought through properly.
I still remember those words. They boosted my confidence and gave me courage to continue believing in myself.
By the way, looking back, I was not a perfect manager, but I appreciated the words, and they motivated me to improve my performance.
In different ways, the words spoken to James and myself became self-fulfiling prophecies.
In our society we place great value on freedom of expression and speech. This is a hallmark of democracy, and we greatly value this freedom. But having the freedom to express ourselves does not remove the consequences of misuse of that freedom.
It is symptomatic of modern democratic societies that we do not always evaluate the negative domino effect that words can have.
How often do we hear the expressions “I say what I think” or “At least I am honest about my feelings”? We like to speak freely, but we do not necessarily like to evaluate the harm our words may do to others. Is that being honest?
A negative attitude is often the source of irresponsible words. Here are some of the signs of a negative attitude:
l Expressions of total judgements such as “He always lies or exaggerates”, “She is never on time”, or “I always have to do the dirty work around here”.
Such expressions of total judgement tend to demonstrate a negative attitude. Be careful of using them, they tend to offend and draw negative responses.
When such expressions are interpreted as a judgement of the person (rather than the specific action), the negative effect may cascade into the future. This is especially applicable when leaders at home or at work tend to make harsh personal judgements.
l A tendency to judge situations before getting all sides of the story.
This is common in our society and it is amazing how adults cling to this habit.
Respected leaders tend to be careful about making snap judgements of situations before the necessary homework has been done.
It is during this phase of making snap judgements that relationships and situations may be damaged, sometimes beyond repair.
A negative attitude is often backed by passionate, emotional conviction that our feelings are justified. A negative attitude often wants a quick kind of justice.
If undisciplined by our social system, such negative feelings can have terrible consequences.
Although most of us resist allowing our negative attitudes to escalate into social crimes, we need to realise that our words can often have a ripple effect that may go much further than we realise.
Make no mistake, a negative attitude is a form of blindness. It is like wearing coloured or foggy spectacles that we do not necessarily recognise until somebody points it out to us. Negative words and feelings simply flow out of a negative mind.
The expression “self-fulfiling prophecy” has significant implications in terms of our leadership legacy.
What I am committed to emotionally now is prophetically indicative of what will happen in my future.
What you and I say today is a direct indication of our believed values and self-worth. To remain quiet is often indicative of great wisdom. As the saying goes: “If you cannot say something good about a person, then don’t say anything.”
We have listed some of the many evils that might result from negative words.
The other side of the coin is more important for those of us who strive to be good leaders and better people in general.
As we learn to spot our negative moods, we will learn to be more disciplined in our choice of words. In this way we make room for the better part of us to surface more often.
I have yet to meet a person who does not have a better part of his or her nature.
Our struggle to govern words is as old as time itself. We should not need sophisticated training courses to tell us that we are responsible for our own words.