Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
Most of us have either said or heard these words. But saying these words does not make them true. In fact, we know they are not true. Words can hurt and cut very deeply, or they can inspire and motivate. If you’re like me, you have used the saying countless times as a means to protect or shield yourself from pain. But trust me–it doesn’t work. It’s simply a camouflage to help us in that moment, which if not addressed, can spill over into other relationships.
Words have power—they not only impact you but they impact others. Today, I observed a conversation between two friends. Friend 1 was speaking to Friend 2 about her position as a janitor and how she used to be in a more senior position before it was downsized. As a result, she either had to take a lower paying job until something else was available or leave the company. She decided on the latter at least until she could find a better opportunity. She was discouraged because she really enjoyed working for the company, but she did not see any future advancement.
Friend 2 wanted to lift her spirits. She tried to find the appropriate words to say. She thought about it for a minute and said, “Well, as a janitor you are at your lowest so there’s nowhere else to go but up.”
STOP. REWIND. TRY AGAIN.
Those were not the right words to say. Friend 2 thought she was providing encouragement, but Friend 1 was insulted. She felt that Friend 2 was minimizing not only her role as a janitor but as a person. She saw it as a ‘put down’ and condescending to say the least. They both shared their perspective with me and then asked my opinion. I understood that Friend 2 was trying to be supportive, but the words just didn’t come out right. I also understood why Friend 1 was hurt. She was being vulnerable, and she felt like her friend was not empathetic or caring about her situation. I took a deep breath and explained each perspective taking both of their feelings into consideration. Bottom line—they resolved it, apologized, hugged, and moved forward.
The example that I provided is a simplistic example of ‘sticks and stones’ yet it highlights the power of words. But as we know, many situations are not this simplistic. Sometimes the disagreement or discussion will be more challenging and hurtful. Sometimes tempers may flare and there may not be another person to serve as a facilitator. The persons talking will not always care about the other’s feelings. And believe it or not, these situations occur just as much in the workplace as they do in our personal lives. Yes I said it— hurt feelings are shared between colleagues too. Sometimes we know and sometimes we don’t. It may be unintentional and unavoidable because we are human, and we are not perfect. The question is how should we respond when it happens?
First, be respectful and kind. I acknowledge that sometimes it’s challenging but there is never a reason to be rude. You will find that kindness and respect will go a long way in resolving any misunderstandings.
Second, empathize. Walk in the other person’s shoes. It will provide clarity and perspective.
Third, acknowledge their feelings. I’m not saying you have to agree with them, but their feelings are still important.
Fourth, pay attention to body language (that includes your own). Sometimes it’s not what you say but it’s how you say it. Be mindful of your tone, hand gestures, posture, eyes, etc. during any interaction (communication is 70% nonverbal).
Fifth, apologize. Apologizing doesn’t mean that what you said was wrong and it doesn’t mean they were right. It means that it was not your intention to hurt or cause them any pain. In retrospect, maybe there were things that both of you could have said or done differently.
Finally, let it go. Of course it would be good if all situations were resolved in a positive manner but face it—sometimes it will not happen. As long as you have done your best; that’s enough.
At the end of the day, the only person you can really control is YOU. Sticks and stones may break bones; but your words can cut even deeper. So use them to heal, uplift, motivate, and inspire. I hope this encourages you or someone you know. Please share with others.
Dr. Carolyn Vincent (Dr. C) is an author, trainer, facilitator, speaker, and certified executive and leadership coach. Her latest collection of poems is called Unbreakable: Readings that inspire and motivate. As the president of Vincent Associates, she is also known as a diversity and inclusion catalyst who teaches and facilitates public and private sector organizations in diversity and inclusion. She earned a business degree from Arkansas State University, an E.D. from The George Washington University, and an executive MBA from Strayer University. She is also certified as a coach through the International Coaching Federation. Dr. Vincent is a native of Arkansas who currently resides in Maryland. http://unbreakablebydrc.com/
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