Power in Vocabulary

Words Carry Power

There is power in our vocabulary.  The words we choose to speak are not trivial.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” Proverbs 18:21a

We are creatures of language. It has built and guided our societies for millenia. Think of how the right words phrased and framed in the right rhythm, and in brevity, have inspired millions to unity in a common goal.

“We the people… see these truths to be self-evident”

“I have a dream…”

“We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

Words Carry Baggage

Words carry baggage. Some more than others.

Emotions • Associations • History • Behavioral Patterns

While the baggage will differ from person to person, you can generally rely on it being of a certain nature.

Take literal baggage, or luggage, for instance.

Baggage Scanner

Imagine you’re a TSA agent checking the baggage of some random stranger heading to the Arctic. What would you expect to find?

Heavy clothes, thick woolen socks, winter jacket, warm boots… that sort of thing.

How about someone’s suitcase headed to Aruba?

Sunglasses, flip flops, a few bathing suits, maybe a Hawaiian shirt, right?!

We don’t need to split hairs over whether the Hawaiian shirt is pineapple or palm tree forward. The point is that we wouldn’t be surprised to find it there.

Just like we shouldn’t be surprised to find defeatist thoughts, negative emotions, childlike behavior, or resentment traveling along with “no” or “can’t” or “you’re too…” even if spoken in the very nicest tone of voice.

Vocabulary Impacts Perception

Our vocabulary in any sort of team atmosphere – business or otherwise – should be carefully managed to cultivate the desired environment.

One of the clearest examples of this experienced was in a group exercise. A room full of people were handed cards with the same set of adjectives describing the same individual listed in some arbitrary order. Words like “driven”, “outgoing”, “meticulous”, “leader”, “competitive”, “accountable”, “guiding”, etc.

When later asked to describe the person from the cards, the group was clearly split where about half thought of a benevolent family-oriented pillar of the community and the other half perceived a hard-driving cutthroat corporate executive type.

The catch was one single word difference. Half of the group had the word “warm” in their list, and the other half instead had the word “cold”.

We needn’t have collected and tallied the lists. It was clear who had received which list and absolutely eye-opening as to how our perceptions could be shaped by a single word.

To be clear, this isn’t a statement on political correctness here (though there can be some parallels).

Emotions Impact our Thinking

Consciously omitting or including certain words or phrases in your vocabulary can have the intended effect of ushering in a lifetime of related emotions and experiences to aid in your cause – whatever direction that might be.

Words with Negative Vocabulary Power

Consider the work of leading neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. In the mid 1980’s he took on a patient with brain damage resulting from a tumor removal surgery. While otherwise healthy, this formerly successful and well-adjusted member of society exhibited some odd behaviors and his life fell apart as a result. He was highly intelligent and continued to score exceedingly well on intelligence tests, but was utterly unable to make a decision. The simple choosing of what to eat for lunch could consume this man for half a day. He could clearly communicate his preferences, list reasonable and accessible options, and describe in full detail how he would actualize any potential meal option. He just couldn’t pick one.

Damasio discovered the link between emotion and logic in human decision making through this landmark case study (you can read more in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain). The part of this man’s brain that connected his emotions to his logical prefrontal cortex was severed. To make a decision, we need both emotions and logic. And the emotional component comes first.

Be Intentional With Your Vocabulary

Choose words that harness complementary emotions. Leverage those emotions to encourage your team. Draw out more vigor and energy, greater participation. Eliminate vocabulary that stifles creativity or emotionally engages one’s defenses.

If you want to foster a creative, highly-engaged team environment, choose your words wisely.

So the next time someone comes up with a real worm-food idea, don’t say “No, that’s the sort of ridiculous idea the old regime would have tried.” Instead say,

“Astonishing! Let’s keep discovering options.”

Not only will you have a little chuckle inside your head, it’ll keep keep from stifling ideas and improve your mood as well.

You’re much more likely to unlock the good ideas and get further ahead with intentional vocabulary.

CDN Inc. is a product design and engineering firm that can adapt easily to your project needs; engineering, industrial design, prototyping & manufacturing.

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