Words: Handle with care

Wandering around the Library of Congress last week, my eyes gravitated to a quote high on the wall. It said, “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”   At the time, I didn’t know who had said it (Ralph Waldo Emerson), but it stuck in my head for days.

As I was growing up, I often heard adults say, “Actions speak louder than words.” Emerson seems to be saying that words and actions are equal, that while our actions speak for us, our words have the capacity to sting or caress as surely as if we were using our hands.

This couldn’t be truer than it is today. In this age of digital communication, people tend to throw words around carelessly. With email and texting, we don’t have to worry about wasting paper or ink; we don’t have to take the time to put a letter in an envelope, stamp it and mail it in order to send someone a message. So we don’t think as carefully about the things we say. Words have become a cheap commodity, often chosen without a lot of thought as to their meaning or effect.

If we stop and think about how much of our stress is coming from interactions with other people, we can see that a lot of it is a result of the blunt force of these mindless communications. Emails and texts deprive us of tone of voice, facial expression and body language, so their messages are often misinterpreted. Sometimes offense is taken when none was intended. Speaking face to face is not always better; often people speak at each other rather than to each other. We wait for our turn to speak, rather than listening so that we can respond with understanding.

Headlines are made when celebrities are forced to close their Twitter accounts or politicians are driven from office due to ill-advised words. For the rest of us, the results of miscommunication can be just as painful and devastating: someone doesn’t speak to you anymore, relationships are strained, or business is lost.

How can we practice communicating more clearly, more carefully and more compassionately?

  • Do take the time to be sure that saying something serves a useful purpose. Soren Gordhamer makes the point that sometimes our comments (on-line or in person) are just a form of one-upmanship: “When we are caught in what we may call the judging mind, we continually look for people and actions to criticize. Instead of a critique that seeks to help, we do so to build up our own sense of superiority.”
  • Do pay attention to what others are saying non-verbally, with eye contact, body language and even silences.
  • Do listen reflectively to other people. Repeat or rephrase what they have said to you to be sure you understand it.
  • Don’t communicate difficult messages (like breaking up with someone) via email or text. Give the other person the respect of a face-to-face meeting.
  • Don’t hit the “send” button so quickly, especially if your message is complicated or unwelcome. Wait 10 minutes and read it again to be sure it conveys what you really want the other person to hear.

How would it feel to be on the receiving end of your words? Should that be our standard for better communication? As the Buddha said, “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”


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