Sticks and Stones – Three Things I’ve Learned About the Power of Words 

I was in a meeting recently and a friend was complimenting her colleague. She was being so kind and caring with her words and her genuine nature created a very safe space for deeper conversation. It struck me that she was being so generous with not only her words, but her assumptions of the good in this person. The exchange was brief. The impact was incredible. The other person was grateful, and I believe, felt truly seen and heard.

Remember telling that kid in the playground who was bullying you with “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. I call bullsh*t. I’ve seen way too often how deeply powerful and painful words can be. Have you ever said something, out loud (or email, text, on-line) that you wished you could have taken back instantly? I have had a few of these mortifying moments where, there they were, the words out there landing as they may on the people around me. My face flushed deep red, I felt sick to my stomach and I so wished I could take back the words. Such a gross feeling – the knowledge that the words I used might have hurt someone. Ugh.

So, after this meeting, I drove home inspired and curious as to how I could be more generous in my assumptions, my words, my approach – even if it’s a tiny wee-bit. It brought to mind a quote I’ve seen circulating social media over the past year:

Before you speak, let your words pass through these gates:

“Is it true?”

“Is it necessary?”

“Is it kind?”

Kind words are much easier when things are good. What I mean by that is, it is difficult to be caring with my words when I’m angry, righteous, in conflict, afraid, hurt or offended. And I am pretty certain, that’s actually when it counts the most.

How challenging is it can to not fling open the gates and barge in and to be aware of the tremendous impact words can have on others? Let’s take a look at what I discovered with the three gates and the power of words:

Is it true? Have you read Loving What Is by Bryon Katie? This is the profound question she asks. Is it true? When I’m on my high horse or heels are dug in, the answer is usually “hells ya”! And you know, sometimes the facts are the facts and yes, it is true. And then she asks, “Is it REALLY true”? It’s this second asking of this question that actually invites a pause, a breath and a deeper look if this thing is absolutely, completely true. I apply this a lot to things I see on social media, idle gossip by anyone (including myself), and am trying harder to apply in my assumptions or judgments I have of others. It is an invitation to ask yourself, at the first gate, before speaking, “Is it really (really, really) true”? I’m a bit humbled that the answer is often “No” or “I’m not actually sure”.

Is it necessary? Oh, yes, it is completely necessary! This second gate is my Achilles heel when I’m feeling self-righteous. I have a voice and I am using it. I really like to insert my thoughts and opinions (just ask my husband and the soap box I carry around!) and I feel the world will be better off with me sharing my words. Hmm. Except that, and this is unsettling, this is actually not true. In some recent coaching training I’ve received, the facilitator, Dr. David Drake shared a thought-provoking quote and a great piece of advice: “Do not speak unless you can improve on the silence” – Ram Dass. Is it necessary begs the question “Do I really need to say this”? Often times, um more often than not, the answer is “No, it really is not necessary”.

Is it kind? Even if I’ve charged my way through the true and necessary gates, this third one should stop me in my tracks. When a word (more importantly an unkind word, or a kind word with an ill-intent i.e.: passive aggressive), is out, it is like a million pieces of confetti being thrown into the sky, it is impossible to pick up and take back every little piece. Yes, one can apologize for a hurtful or spiteful word but once through this gate, there will likely always be confetti pieces that never get cleaned up. I’m reminded of the simple little book I’ve been carrying with me for over a decade now called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. He states in the 1st Agreement: Be Impeccable with Your Word. I’d quote the entire chapter if I could, it’s mystical and magical, profound and important, simple in theory and challenging in practice. Using words with a positive intention (yes, even in a tougher conversation). Asking is it kind? If it is not, why say it?

Thinking about that meeting, and how my friend naturally, likely unintentionally, yet caringly walked through these gates. She spoke a beautiful true statement about the colleague – a compliment of their character. It was so necessary because the impact was palpable. And kind – yes, beyond belief.

Speak when you are angry – and you will make the best speech you will ever regret. ~ Laurence J. Peter

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