Words matter. The words we use when we talk to ourselves, as much as the ones we use with each other, in conversations and presentations, blog posts, on social media: words matter everywhere. They carry meaning - assigned or implied - as much as intention.
As a teenager, or maybe I was already in my early 20's, I asked myself what I would tattoo on myself, if ever. Friends talked of symbols and images, poetry or slogans: I felt the need to find a word - a single word. What word would feel right, if inked onto my, at the time, very pale skin that I could truly live with? It didn't take me long to figure it out.
That word is harmony. Shortly before, I had completed a creative project, a five-piece vocal girl band for a one-time event. That was the catalyst that led me to uncover my passion for voices coming together in complex harmonies. To this day, it's still one of the things that makes me happiest in the world, whether listening to the trio ‘die drei Damen’ from the Magic Flute or Erykah Badu layering her voice over India Arie'sat the BET Awards for a more recent musical example. I so look forward to the day that I can sing again and harmonise with my vocalist friends Cece and Ella.
Beyond my love of music, the word harmony also described then - and now - how I like my environment, my relationships, my sense of self. In harmony. Harmonious. It's probably no wonder then that I ask all my guests on the podcast their favourite word.
I never really knew words mattered that much, not until relatively recently. Had I known that, I would have been much more careful with them over the years. Now that I do, though, I am on a mission to make others aware - that means you too, lovely reader.
Words are powerful, and so is our language in general. An important means to convey human experience, its literary form was too long reserved for the elite. And yet, what are we doing with them? How mindful are we of the words we put out into the world?
The other week, I heard writer Elizabeth Lesser discussing the broad adoption of violent or combative metaphors, used by all of us widely in daily life. Her point was that language is not static - we should become more conscious and consider harnessing the power that more positive mental images could wield around. [LOL. In recording this post I realised I was using the word wielding here because of the mental image that positive metaphors could be brandished as swords? There is a little more work to be done here.]
This notion came back to me in a flash a couple of days ago as I heard the words 'rolling with the punches' come out of my mouth during a meeting. Why would I be using a boxing metaphor? I caught myself, stopped and tried to find a more appropriate image to illustrate the point I was trying to make. It had nothing to do with boxing; it was indeed not appropriate at all.
What story are you telling via the simple choice of your words? What metaphors are you weaving, and how do they colour your tale?
'Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.' Lao Tzu
Last year I very randomly stumbled upon a podcast by famed internet marketer Pat Flynn. I can't even tell you how I came to listen to it, it was serendipitous, to say the least. His guest, Dr Shannon Irvine, who holds a PHD in psychology with a specialisation in neuro-plasticity, a subject I adore, supports entrepreneurs for a living, and here explains the power, the science and the practicality in using words to own the truth that we have defined:
‘So many of us have our thoughts, our stories and our future on autopilot, when we have been gifted this beautiful system of our brain that can literally automate what you want. [ …] Over time your thinking starts to shift, you start taking different actions, you start believing different things because the story that you are starting your day with is the story of the person that you ultimately will be.’
I probably needed to hear that to help me continue the explorations around my clients values, vision and mission statements. I needed to hear that for myself. The invitation she extended was first to define the story.
Between Dr Shannon Irvine and Lao Tzu, I took note and let this percolate at the back of my mind until I started writing: writing morning pages, writing affirmations, writing about my intention, writing copy, writing press releases, writing this blog, and also learning to choose my best words when recording my podcast.
Here’s what I found: when I feel strongly connected to my goals and intentions, repeating chosen sentences pulls me towards taking action, deliberately taking me to that focal point, in a way that matches the words on the page. The trick is to make the words powerful and compelling, to use extraordinary terminology. As Dr Marisa Peers explains so clearly: “Words are powerful – and your mind is listening.”
For example, often I hear people around me using double negatives to express agreement. To me, the choice of words indicates more confusion rather than agreement. Or I hear people being short and dismissive saying things like: 'Just go and talk to so and so.' The intention indicated in the words will be a driver of action and behavior for the speaker as well as the surrounding participants in the situation. Talk about reading the room.
Over the few years of mindfulness practice I’ve experienced, I’ve learned to become more conscious of my own thoughts and the words that come up to follow them. As many meditators will attest, many of our thoughts are 'fake news', as my teacher Jack Kornfield likes to joke. Getting intimate with our mental formations is important - after all, there is often a need for fact checking ourselves. That process is a major upgrade in intentional speech, as in not being solely reactive, but responsive. If I ever was given a billboard - as in Tim Ferriss' podcast closing question - without a doubt mine would read: 'Don't believe your thoughts. And choose your words carefully.'
Ah the things I know now that I didn't know then.
It's good news: we have control over the stories in our minds to a large extent. We can make some careful applied choices about what we say to ourselves. We can get better at using our words for good - our good, the collective good too.
With a touch of mindfulness, we can pay attention to what we say to each other, in business or at home. I invite you to pay attention to words that empower, words that soften. Words that inspire, that light a spark. Also explore what words touch you, what words have uplifted you. Consider how you could use them to uplift others.
Our words announce our intentions; they pave the way towards our future. We are indeed, at all times, co-creating alongside everyone else.
I’m not a wordsmith quite yet, I’m in training so to speak, interning. But from my vantage point, I can see the potential. So why turn away from what is staring at us right in the face?
You, too, can choose to write your story intentionally.