On choice based language: Words are weapons, sharper than knives

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Choose-WiselyThat awkward moment, when you are doing language detox week as part of the Right Speech section in a Mindful Leadership seminar, you drive in your car with the radio on and your eight year old daughter belts out “it’s hard out here for a B*TCH” at the top of her lungs from the back seat.

Language detox challenge in your face, mama!

That gave me a bit of a pause and some food for thought on how carelessly we use one of the most powerful tools we have: Language.

Language, words and music (which is, of course, also a language) take up a humongously large space in my head and in my life.

I will proudly go so far as to call myself a Word Nerd and Story Addict.  I love anything that is well written and / or eloquently performed: from poems to short stories, theatre, film and radio plays. Give me a Walt Whitman or e.e. cummings compilation and I’m good for a long, long while. Or a Homeland Season 1 to 3 binge. Because who needs sleep when you are riding with Carrie Mathison on her story arc?

Stories and words came into my life at an early age courtesy of a medical mishap resulting in the onset of a rare blood condition that started when I was a baby and lasted well into my teens. Drug induced Agranulocytosis confined me to the inside of our apartment for most of my spare time in the Seventies and Eighties with a library card and a short wave radio as my permanent companions.

SheldonThe lack of white blood cells meant very high risk of serious infections due to a suppressed immune system. Minimising exposure to germs by avoiding people seemed like the ticket to keep this thing under control until eventually the bone marrow injections paid off a decade or so later.

Hence this germ-avoiding chapter of my life is frequently referred to as the Sheldon period these days.

This meant A LOT of time spent with my nose stuck in books and my ears glued to the radio diving deep into the stories and worlds of dramas or murder mysteries, eventually complemented by an eclectic mix of TV programs deemed suitable by my mom, which consisted of Star Trek and Bonanza. This may or may not directly be related to my thing for the Science of Logic and black shirts.

Subsequently my cortex gradually filled up on a mix of (young adult) literature, profound TV wisdom and a ridiculous amount of 80ies song lyrics, which to this day still cause me to spontaneously karaoke when the hits come on on the radio in the car. Or in a warehouse elevator. Or as background music on endless holding patterns at helplines. It’s been ingrained into this DNA and will be passed on to future generations. Take heed!

So, words have always been my trusty companions through thick and thin through books, journals, notebooks, and letters. They uplifted, consoled and inspired. They taught, guided and entertained and kept me occupied and sane at any given point in time throughout the years.

For the longest time though, to me, words always came with positive connotation – even if heartbreak was involved – words always provided solutions – an escape route that somehow had the power to make everything hopeful and ok.

A few years ago, however, I was sent an e-mail by a very close friend with whom I had argued intensely. The e-mail contained nothing but the text for the “Holes in the Fence” story and the subject: I hope I didn’t make any holes.

Holes In the Fence

There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence.

The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there.”

When I read that e-mail, it was the first time I had ever heard the story and it made me think about how deeply we can irrevocably wound someone with just a few – if not even only one – word(s). That was many years ago and I have used this story many times since.

But even after this insight and all these years of being aware and wary about what and how you communicate with other people nothing prepared me for the revelation of how hugely the words we use in our thoughts impact our selves.

A simple, seemingly insignificant change of one letter in a very short sentence (should to a could) has the power to shift an entire train of thought and action within the fraction of a second.

That came as a bit of a shock.

But a good one at that and at a time much needed.  And I am ever so grateful to both Debra Hickock and Emily Bennington for introducing this concept – Choice Based Language – to yours truly.

We all have these immensely powerful tools at our discretion. But when it comes down to it – especially in extremely difficult situations – I, for one, will try to remember the words of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade:

“You must choose, but choose wisely.”

I am thrilled to be on the Choice Based Language train. I hope to see you along for the ride.

language detox

The language detox week consists of monitoring what kind of words you use in thoughts and speech and trying to actively cut out anything that is not true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind.