Harnessing the Power of Words

power of wordsAbout a year ago, I was taking part in a Twitter chat in which teachers were talking about the importance of positive thinking and its hand in avoiding burnout. Writing about the power of word choice, one of the teachers said, “I don’t use the word ‘busy’ anymore. I use the word ‘productive’ instead.” We began discussing the different connotations of the words: “Busy” often feels like a complaint and sounds like we’re not in control, whereas “productive” feels like a pat on the back and reminds us that we have a choice.

So, I began experimenting with this. When someone asked me about my day, instead of answering, “I’m so busy,” I would answer, “I’m having such a productive day.” Do you hear the difference? It made me feel positive, uplifted, and in charge of my day, rather than a victim of too much work. It also gave me a feeling of accomplishment. Yes, I’m busy — I’m an educator, so that goes without saying — and the workload is often out of my control, but I am in control of the way I react to my busy-ness. It’s amazing how one small word can change both my mood and my outlook.

Since then I’ve been scouting out words that I want to replace. I recently noticed that when someone came to me with an idea, I immediately felt a fear of change and fear of yet more work, so my reaction was usually a quick and decisive “No.” But often, upon thinking about it, I’d realize that the idea was good after all and it no longer seemed quite so overwhelming. I’d change my mind, go to the person and say, “Hey, your idea about _____ actually sounds great and I think we can make it work….” However, I’d see the guarded look in their eyes, the hurt that the “no” had already inflicted, and I’d realize that the damage was done and they probably wouldn’t share their next great idea with me.

Realizing this, I started changing my “No” responses to “Let me think about it,” instead. Or, if I know immediately that the idea is great but that I don’t have room on my plate for more projects, I say, “That’s a great idea. How can you make that happen?” Nothing changes with these responses — I still have time to consider an idea and think about how to make it work. But the person who took the risk of sharing an idea with me feels validated instead of squashed. This change in word choice is incredibly important if we want our teachers to be innovative, creative go-getters.

Much of the research on fixed mindset vs. growth mindset also shows us the power of word choice . Personally, my favourite is the addition of “yet” to an “I can’t…” statement. The world is changing at a galloping pace and there’s so much I don’t know. But now, instead of saying, “I don’t know how to make a hyperdoc,” I say, “I don’t know how to make a hyperdoc yet.” The simple addition of “yet” makes me feel like a learner. I feel empowered to change and grow.

We all have those go-to words that become bad habits and bring us down. They may not be noticeable, but they’re there, affecting the way we feel and how we react to life. Thinking consciously about the words we use and replacing them with more uplifting ones can change our attitude to life and to work.

In order to remain positive (and avoid the dreaded “teacher burnout”), think about your go-to words — the ones you automatically use to respond to students, to colleagues, to friends and family. Are some of them negative? Try replacing them with more positive words or phrases for a few weeks and see both how you feel and how the people around you react. It’s a simple technique that gives magical results.

10 Comments

  1. This is so true–so true. The challenging part about words is that …well we have to use them! Sometimes what we want to express isn’t capturable in words (Yes, let’s pretend that’s a word). I struggle all the time with “words”–many people won’t consider my work because I use the word “imagination” (they think fairies and bubbles and make-believe) OR I use the word “story” as a teaching method and they can’t get past “fiction”. In your role as a leader I can TOTALLy see how your word choice will impact your school culture and interactions. From what I read here–and have learned through our interactions–your attention to all things relationship (including your word choice) pays off!

  2. Yes, I’m sure you come up against a lot of stereotypes and pre-conceived notions when you talk about “imagination” – hopefully your blog will help change that. We fight words with words…. 🙂

  3. Ylonka Rodríguez April 23, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    You are so right, words have a a lot of power. I have seen you using these words and it does change the connotation completely. When someone tells me there is a problem, I usually say lets work it out, or find a solution together; instead of saying this is a problem I don’t know how we can fix this. I think when we have so much on our plate it’s so easy to just say “no,” I don’t use the words you mention consistently yet, but I’m definitely practicing. Thanks to you.

    • Ylonka, you’re always very careful to make your words gentle, inclusive, and understanding. You’re my role model, girl!!

  4. The words you say aren’t just important to who you say them to, but also to you as you speak them! You hit the nail on the head – we need to be in a growth mindset, and we must get our students in that frame of mine as well. Word choice is definitely a clear path to that goal! Love your posts!

    • Thanks so much for reading Susan! Can’t wait to see you when you visit this summer… we have so much to talk about 🙂

  5. I’m with you, Carla. Words and their meanings can deliver unintended consequences, so best to grab them precisely (rather than out of thoughtless habit, say). Wondering if you see any danger of slippery euphemistic slopes here that might conceal — rather than convey — intended meaning?

    • Oh definitely, Brian. Clear communication is such a difficult thing to master. Most of the time when I mediate a conflict, I realize it’s because of a misunderstanding due to word choice or body language. Once we get to the “oh, that’s what you meant…” moment, the conflict is resolved.

  6. Coming off of a hard week, I’m left wondering what kinds of words I am using in my self-talk as well as expressing to others. And knowing I have several long nights this week, I’m going to say that I have the opportunity to spend some good quality time with kids :-)!

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