Did you ever wonder why some words have high emotional power while others just slide off people’s lips without a second thought?
The old saying, “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you” is 100% not true.
Let me explain.
While recently preparing my presentation for the Indiana Women’s Conference, I found an old notebook about communication that had me smiling and scratching my head.
Words, even short ones, like ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ can create conflict or heal a rift in a matter of minutes.
Let me invite you to go with me back to an experiment in graduate school about the power of words.
The project was to discover if just one word can make a difference in how you react to a situation. Not even sentences, just short, simple words. My lab partner made a list of words for me and I did so for him. We knew each other well enough to put some trigger words in the mix.
Full disclosure: we were ‘sorta dating’ in a flirty way and he did put some words on the list meant to get my attention. And, I must admit, vice versa.
The experiment: We sat in separate small darkened rooms, and heard words told to us over a microphone in a neutral, non-invasive manner. We were hooked up to a small GSR (Galvanic skin response) machine that recorded changes. Kinda like a polygraph machine. No buttons to push. The list went like this: table… scarf…butter….no…. Daffodil…..road…. movie…. dating… yes…. And on and on.
We were asked to observe the pattern that developed from the string of words.
Some words were clearly about the situation at hand… for me words like dating, love, marriage certainly were trigger words with my ‘sorta dating’ lab partner sitting in the next room.
However, one of the words that was a real eye opener for me was a simple one we use and hear every day, more than once.
Every time a ‘Yes’ was said I stayed neutral. It was the word ‘No’ that put me at the top of the meter.
At the time I could not figure out why it was causing so much bodily tension. I was a strong- willed individual (or so I thought) and ‘No’ was easy for me to say.
Over the years, as I continued to study the power of words, my webinar “Communicate to Captivate” helped me see clearly why ‘No’ was a bell ringer in my nervous system.
I had always identified one of the behavior patterns I learned as a kid as “the rebel.” I did not like to be told what to do and did not like to take ‘No’ for an answer. Makes sense so far. However, life is not always as it seems at first blush.
The rebel was really a cover for a deeper behavior pattern. The pleaser. Huh, what? I was NOT a pleaser, thank you. And yet, as I got through the first layer of thinking to what was underneath my automatic response to the word ‘No’ I realized that I had been programmed from day one to be a pleaser.
I was trained to be polite and ee-gads, proper.
As all children do, I learned by imitating. I watched my mother, aunts, female neighbors, teachers. I learned that to be accepted it was important to not make waves and while ‘Yes’ was appropriate ‘No’ was censored.
The rebel in me was always fighting with the pleaser. And then I got it!
It was fine to be a rebel in a philosophical sense, discuss what could be debated in a classroom setting. Yet, when it came to making people happy, doing what was expected of me, the pleaser had the upper hand.
If it meant stuffing my own feelings, so be it. The mantra was “be good, be kind, behave.”
I realized that the word ‘No’ had entered my nervous system at an early age as a danger word. A word to use very carefully because it could have grave consequences, especially around being accepted.
In my leadership programs I always remind people that “No is a complete sentence.” Everyone laughs and makes sure to write down this nugget of wisdom.
I also teach that the pleaser transformed becomes a truth teller. It is healthy and appropriate to say No and not back down. And yet, I wonder if I took the GSR test today would ‘No’ still be at the top of the chart as emotionally charged.
A moment to think about why words have high emotional power…What do you think your trigger words are? And even better, why do you think these words would cause emotional heat?
Send me your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org and I would love to send you a copy of the 13 most common behavior patterns we learn in childhood and their positive transformation.