Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” How many of us were taught this childhood chant? It originated from the 18th century to encourage children to ignore verbal taunts rather than retaliate physically. However, I think the adage is not entirely correct. While sticks and stones – if used aggressively – can indeed break bones, words have the potential to shatter the soul.

Think back throughout your life. Most – if not all – of us have endured a few injuries over the years, both of the physical and the psychological variety. Which hurts more? Is it the time you broke your leg during your first attempt at downhill skiing? Or is it the time someone you cared about – maybe someone whose approval you craved – made you feel like you weren’t good enough?

We have all heard about scenarios where a bullied student has reached a breaking point and taken his own life. We have also seen instances where a whole town, school, or other organization has rallied around a struggling family, supporting them through a challenging time. Which is better?

There is no doubt that words can hurt us….and also help us. Whether an anger-fueled insult or a kind word of encouragement, words can certainly make a difference in our lives.

Often, people will say things to each other out of habit and without really thinking about the harm their words cause. Hurtful things are usually said as a knee-jerk reaction, perhaps out of anger or frustration. The key word here is reaction, as opposed to response. Responding to something means you have time to consider the implications of what you do or say.

Of course we should stop and consider our words (and actions). It sounds easy, like something that everyone should understand, right? However, it’s not always that simple. We all have things in our subconscious that, when triggered, we are programmed to react without thinking. Often this “programming” is a result of things we picked up earlier in life. Especially as children (but even throughout adulthood), we learn by watching those around us.

Most of us have been guilty of saying something that we wish we could take back. When you think back on such as incident, it might be helpful to ask yourself “Why did I say that?” Being aware of a potential trigger can help you respond rationally in the future.

What about those times when delivering negative feedback is necessary? In the early 1980s, I attended a training class for work. There are two things from this class that have stuck with me all these years. The first one is to give specific feedback to people, without focusing on their character. For example, instead of telling your employee that they are lazy and a poor worker, tell them “You came in one hour late, didn’t clean up your workstation, and created extra work for everyone else”. The second one is to praise more than you criticize “You’re usually one of the best workers here. No one can handle the customers better than you can, and you do a great job of mentoring the younger employees”. It takes practice to do this, but gets easier with time.

We have a huge effect on those around us, by what we say and what we do. Whether that effect is helpful or harmful is completely up to us – but we all have the ability to make a difference.

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