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The Power of Words

by, Andria Botzet, MA, LAMFT

I recently came across an article on GoodTherapy.org (blog dated 4.14.16) about communication, which noted that only 7% of human communication is transmitted through words.  This brief statistic really got me thinking! In my experiences working with families and individuals, I wholeheartedly believe this to be accurate.  At the same time, I frequently hear people talk about “poor communication” or that they’re looking to improve communication, though in most cases, they’re referring to their verbal interactions (or lack thereof).  Even though words may only comprise 7% of our communication, my experience suggests that verbal language plays a very critical role in our relationships and our mental health.

When working with individuals, couples, and families, I pay close attention to the language they use to describe their experiences and interactions.  Additionally, I notice how they and others react to their words.  The more common observations that I’ve made revolve around 3 primary words:

  1. Should. An instructor once told me, “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself, and don’t ‘should’ on others”; over time, I’ve come to more fully realize what he meant.  Simply stated, the word “should” carries a tremendous amount of pressure and judgment.  Try to replace the word with more action-oriented terms or “I statements”.  For example, the statement “I really should be doing laundry instead of watching this show”, can be replaced with “I will do laundry after I watch this show”.  The replacement statement acts as a plan or goal, rather than carrying self-judgment against watching television, suggesting that “I’m doing the wrong thing”.  Similarly, the message “you should really be getting an A in that class” can be replaced with “I’d like you to study more for that class”.  In this case, the replacement statement reflects the speaker’s wishes rather than placing judgement on the recipient.
  2. But. This word tends to negate the prior portion of the statement.  “Thank you for taking out the garbage, but you forgot to wash the laundry” provides a tone that tells the recipient that the first act (taking out the garbage) is trivial, and that they have somehow let you down by not completing the more important task of washing laundry.  Replacing “but”s with “and”s will soften the tone of the statement: “Thank you for taking out the garbage, and please don’t forget to wash the laundry”.  In many cases, the recipient will respond much more favorably to the latter statement.
  3. Never/Always. Regarding behaviors in relationships, these words are rarely accurate.  “You never clean up after yourself” may seem accurate after you have picked up a loved one’s dirty dishes for the 100th time, and – chances are – there has been a time or two that they have put away their own dirty dishes.  It is also very likely that they will feel attacked by that statement and will react defensively, which will not help your mission to have them clean up in the future.  However, by avoiding the never/always words, the statement can be softened, which will likely lessen their defensive reaction: “I have been picking up your dinner dishes, and I need you to do it yourself now”.  These words can also serve as a cognitive distortion of our own self-worth or self-confidence.  Saying to ourselves “I’ll never do it right!” or “I always screw things up”, is likely not completely accurate and does not help us to grow.  Practicing softer self-talk will increase self-confidence and will open us up to new experiences: “I’ve been struggling with this, and I will get it sooner or later!” and “I’m human and I made a mistake; I will work to correct it”.

The remaining 93% of language consists of a blend of tones, facial expressions, body positioning, and gestures; I’m fascinated by the complexity of what I previously thought to be simply “talking”!  I guess the old children’s playground phrase isn’t exactly true: Sticks and stones may break your bones, and words can hurt just as badly…

Andria Botzet, MA, is a Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist who helps families and couples improve their communication and relationships. Contact Andria today for your FREE consultation by clicking HERE.

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