I remember my mom telling me early on that “words matter.” Once you say something it cannot be unsaid. Even if you apologize and/or make excuses, the imprint on another person’s brain is still there. And, sometimes the repercussions can last for years or even a lifetime. There are many situations where I wish I had been more thoughtful rather than just blurting out what’s on my mind or giving a negative emotion a quick outlet. It’s easy to be lazy in our language, especially when we feel wronged, challenged, or underappreciated. It’s much harder to stop and think before we express something we may later regret. Mom also always said, ‘two wrongs don’t make a right.”
When we are in a position of leadership our word selection is even more important. All leaders have an obligation to make sure their communication is clear, truthful, and well-intentioned. Depending upon your level of responsibility you can impact large numbers of people positively or negatively. It’s not enough to say, “that’s not what I meant” or “don’t take things so literally” or “lighten up” or “the ends justify the means.” You must think through the filter of your audience and its capacity for misinterpretation or misuse. If someone works for you, then you are responsible for how they act under your watch. If you’re in the business of soliciting followers, then it is incumbent on you to channel their energy in constructive ways. Miscommunication is a poor excuse. The culture of an organization will always reflect the character of the leaders in charge of it. And, character is manifested through both words and actions.
The media has been doing a poor job of holding people (including themselves) responsible for their language choices. Words like “traitor,” “coward,” “evil,” “criminal,” “corrupt,” “unethical,” and “crooked” are just tossed around and accepted without reporting their true definition or validating their justification. They are okay with the definition if it stirs up controversy and sells advertising. Instead of the communicator being held liable for what they say, the targets of the offensive communication are often forced to defend themselves and respond in kind. Fact checking is a good thing! Public figures are regularly caught in a lie or misrepresenting the truth and it doesn’t seem to matter. Many propel forward saying whatever is necessary to keep up their momentum regardless of the consequences. This has become a slippery slope that is making it harder and harder for good people of different perspectives to find common ground.
None of us are perfect. The more a spotlight shines on you, the more susceptible you are to the appearance of your own flaws. This is unfair, but it is reality. Moreover, the spotlight rarely finds people who aren’t searching for it in the first place. All of us are responsible for what we say and how we say it. We can use language that brings out the best in others and ourselves or we can communicate in a way that is divisive and catalyzes a targeted negative response. We can manipulate facts or seek the truth. Even in disagreement we can move towards understanding and resolution or further deepen the personal chasm between us and someone else. It is all a choice and the words we choose do matter.