Wednesday 7 June 2017

Power of Words

I feel blessed to have been exposed to Appreciative Inquiry at the turn of the century. Over  the past 12 years, this philosophy has overshadowed my other propensities.  This life-glue has provided a number of opportunities to experience its impact on  my personal and professional life.  I wish to discuss one profound facet of positive psychology and other strength based approaches (like AI) here.  The choice of our words –often determines our well-being or otherwise.  This has been reaffirmed repeatedly for me as a parent, sibling, and a friend or as a Leadership & Business Coach and Organization Development catalyst.
I have seen that the word-choice – howsoever, unconscious (or conscious) alters the happiness quotient or stress quotient in one’s life.  It adjusts the cellular signals emergent in body, feelings, thoughts, and opinions as also, the judgements about people/situations.  It (or triggered unconsciously) modifies our emotional being and the decisions we take.  Further, through mirror neurons[1]that we possess, to a large measure, our choice of words influences people around us, the environment and eventually many an outcome that we achieve/ miss-out.  The gift that every one of us has is – the ability to cultivate an orientation for desirable words; upshot being -- power to create contentment at will and when one is persistent enough to make this a habit, it raises the joy & fulfilment index. Before offering examples to understand this phenomenon and share my experience of how to harness this power, here is a link to a video that helped me imbibe this principle viz.  historia de un letrero (, a 5-minute multiple award- winning film (  This film made me realize the spirit embedded in the quote “Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change”[2]                                                                          

Let me share two examples from my practice last week.  Currently I happen to coach an accomplished CHRO of a company who’s committed to delivering his best for the organization.  Backed by a rich experience of over 20 years he understands the organizational nuances, be it People, their Prejudices or Politics at work. He confided his restlessness about increase in his short-temperament caused by these three Ps.  He said, after narrating  an  incident “…under these circumstances there’s no way but to react like this…”. As he spoke, I sensed the change in his breathing and pain in his voice.  A nudge to reflect on his feelings in the moment revealed the impact of the word “react”, when encouraged to describe the emotions he acknowledged feeling stressed.

Before we dive deeper, let me share another coaching session with a senior executive.  This executive brings impeccable credentials to her new job & role as the change catalyst of a Fortune 200 company.   She was using the coaching session to bounce-off her multifaceted situation --  of high expectations & faith of seniors in her, difficulty  in  deciphering market reality, trying circumstances in personal life, her ambivalence in dealing with a older male-dominated peer group in company and her own desire & impatience to add value.  As she described the scenario, heaviness & confusion was evident in her quip, “…it’s all very overwhelming”.  My nudge to reflect revealed to her that her choice of the word ‘overwhelming’ had accentuated her feelings of helplessness & anxiety. 

The above examples indicate the choice of words had produced emotions that appeared energy draining.  As a coach, I asked both these people that if they were to replace their choice of words what would that be.  The words which emerged in these situations were “respond” and “challenge” =in place of “react “and “overwhelm” .   As theyrephrased their statements their exhausting feelings got replaced with the more refreshing and bouncy ones of keenness, anticipation, curiosity and interest.  As these separate explorations progressed further,one couldn’t  help but notice the common thread of buoyant emotions and a ‘can do’ approach with locus of control firmly lying on person.  Both their inner and outer emotions had changed.

Over the years, I have experienced, experimented with and guided others to cultivate a muscle memory that helps one change their conscious and unconscious vocabulary. We can certainly draw an inspiration from a 200 year-old poem by Letitia Elizabeth Landon[3]
 ‘Tis a strange mystery, the power of words!
Life is in them, and death. A word can send
The crimson colour hurrying to the cheek.
Hurrying with many meanings; or can turn
The current cold and deadly to the heart.
Anger and fear are in them; grief and joy
Are on their sound; yet slight, impalpable:--
A word is but a breath of passing air.

[1] Mirror neurons are a kind of ‘neural wi-fi’ that triggers cellular activity and feelings that contagious and impact not just within a person but even in people around; we’ll cover this fascinating truth some other time
[2]   Ingrid Bengis
[3] courtesy --

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