Words: Use With Caution

Words are my stock in trade. I use them to ask questions that elicit ideas, feelings, and reactions. The words I choose can keep a conversation moving or stop it cold. I listen to others’ words to analyze and interpret and to find insights for my clients.

I love words. I read voraciously and there is little as joyful to me as sinking into a book with beautifully crafted sentences, filled with evocative and gorgeous words.

One of the things I’ve learned, and continue to learn, is that words we use habitually and mindlessly can be hurtful and even devastating.

Just yesterday, I received reminders of that from two different sources.

I read a blog post about the hurt and insensitivity that we cause someone who is dealing with loss or suffering when we console with the words “everything happens for a reason.” The short essay is beautifully written and profound and I can’t do it justice here. Please read it.

And then a few hours later, while facilitating a discussion for a group of brilliant, passionate advocates, I probed an issue by asking whether something wasn’t a “stepchild” of another issue. And later had it pointed out to me (in a very caring way), that using the word “stepchild” to mean that something is less important is not okay. I immediately got it. And I will never use that term again in that way. It’s a word I grew up using, learned from fairy tales like Cinderella where the stepchild was treated as second class (even though she was classier than her sisters) and many more stories that are filled with “ugly stepchildren.” Of course, just because we grew up with certain word usage doesn’t make it right. And it’s sometimes fascinating to uncover the origin of words we use mindlessly. Like “gypped.” Which I stopped using once someone pointed out how offensive that is.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve had very many experiences that have taught me how to use words in ways that open the receivers of the words. My yoga teacher has been a great resource here. Because of her teaching, for example, I don’t ask people to “take” a deep breath, because “take” can suggest an aggressive act, and that’s not what breathing is. Instead, we “receive” each breath in, and we “release” our breath when we exhale. Lovely.

The invitation for all of us (another phrasing that feels more gentle and welcoming than “My suggestion” or “Why don’t you”) is to consider carefully the words we use, many of which come from thoughtless habits. Personally, I appreciate what comes when I am open to receive new ideas and learning about words.

And I’m excited for what today will bring.

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kfeifer@kgfinsights.com