Sticks & Stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Do we still teach this terrible chant to kids?  While well-intentioned, my experience has taught me that words often hurt more deeply and more permanently than a broken bone.  Not only have I experienced and witnessed the wounds that words leave behind, I’ve actually fought with sticks…literally!  No, I wasn’t the kid chasing other kids around my neighborhood wielding a tree branch.  I spent several years practicing eskrima, a Filipino martial art that uses solid sticks as weapons.  Let me tell you first-hand that the blisters, welts, and bruises those sticks left behind eventually healed and faded.  However, words thrown my way from as far back as childhood still ache inside my heart.

Words can have an impact that shapes people in both positive and negative ways.  Hurtful words can have long-lasting, damaging effects.  The harsh, critical language parents use towards their children can shape their identity, sense of security, and sense of self-worth.  For adolescents still learning how to manage their emotions and trying to fit in, words are typically the catalyst for physical fights with peers.  These same children grow up to become adults who perpetuate the cycle, not recognizing how language has shaped their beliefs and behaviors.  In today’s political climate, we see full grown adults using words to demean their opponents.  Worse still, we see people in powerful positions throwing words around haphazardly with little regard for how those words land, what message they send, and the call to action of those who trust in their leadership.

Communication is not my strong suit.  It takes me a long time to craft my messages, a painstaking process that I don’t enjoy.  Still, I know that in order for my messages to have any chance of landing in the way I intend, I have to do the work.  So much of leadership is in how we communicate.  It’s why some leaders can inspire hope regardless of their track record of success, and why others with the potential to do great work may never get enough people to believe in them.

There is another side to communication–how we receive messages.  This is something I believe I’ve managed well in my career.  Whenever you work with a lot of people or are in a position of authority, you are likely to encounter people expressing strong emotions.  (That’s my nice way of saying people will blame, yell, demean, and curse at you whether you deserve it or not.) In those situations it helped me to remember that their words were a manifestation of caring about someone or something deeply.  I understood that giving people the space to share and hearing them fully was the only path forward.  And, I knew that managing my own emotions was necessary if we were going to resolve the issues at hand.  Still, the weight of those words stuck with me and there were many days I went home with barely enough energy to climb into bed.

While words may not have the power to break our bones, they can cut us to the core and leave our hearts tattered and bare.  We all need to recognize the power of words and understand the underlying emotions that fuel those words.  Before speaking, we can pause and consider our intent.  Before reacting, we can look at others with compassion and connect with their humanity.  And at the end of the day, we can stop and recognize how words have impacted us–affirming that our behaviors match our beliefs, bringing to light damage we have done, maybe even cutting us down in ways that were unwarranted.  We can recognize that we are human.  We can use the words that brought us joy as fuel.  We can care for the wounds that words have left on our heart.  And, we can choose our words with care tomorrow.

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