“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” No doubt, you heard this phrase from your parents growing up. You may even have shared it with your own children in an attempt to sooth the pain caused by hurtful comments. It’s meant as a declaration of mental strength, a statement of an individual’s ability to rise above insult, and a belief that words hold no power.
What a load of crap.
The truth is, words do have power. The right ones, spoken by the right person, can hurt even worse than an actual physical assault. Of course, words can also heal; they can strengthen and encourage. It all depends on how they are used.
Like our posture and the way we dress, the way we use language helps other people determine our capability in serving them. Our speech patterns – the combination of words we select and the way we utter them – communicate a great deal about our belief system and the way we approach our work. Language is an incredibly important part of what makes us human, yet we pay so little attention to using it properly.
Dr. Sophie Scott is a “speech neurobiologist” with University College in London. Using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, Dr. Scott has actually mapped the way our brains interpret language. When someone speaks, two different parts of the brain go to work. The left temporal lobe begins interpreting the actual words that are spoken. It takes sound and converts it into concepts and images that help understand the content being shared.
But the sound of our voice, what Dr. Scott calls the “melody,” is processed by the right side of the brain. This is where we interpret music, and it helps us determine the mood and intent of the speaker. This part of the brain functions to ascertain someone’s actual feelings – regardless of the words they use. It’s this dual processing power that allows us understand how we should respond when someone says “It’s nice to meet you,” while also realizing whether or not they actually mean it.
Think about how you greet someone. Does your voice carry the same inflection and energy when meeting a customer as they do when meeting a friend? The words might be the same, but the meaning is often completely different. If your pitch drops and the speech is monotone or rushed, that customer greeting probably comes off as insincere and obligatory. Your greeting could cause a customer to feel like an unwelcomed intrusion – the exact opposite of the intended effect.
Do you speak in full sentences, or in short, clipped fragments? For instance, do you say “I can help you,” or do you just announce “Next?” Do you ask “What name would you like on the account?” or do you spit out “Name?” Try saying those phrases out loud. I bet the tone of your voice changes as you shifted from full sentences to fragments. That’s because our choice of words has an impact on the way we say them. And the way we speak impacts the way customers feel.
A sincere, meaningful greeting helps put the customer in a cooperative state of mind. Continuing the interaction with engaging language ensures they maintain a positive impression of the encounter. You’re already talking to them; why not make the most of it by using language that enhances the experience as much as possible?
Here’s another reason to be more careful with your word choice. The words you use not only affect the mood of your customer; they affect your own mood as well. Remember, even as we speak, our ears are pick up those sounds. Our brains are interpreting the very words we say to process both the meaning and emotion behind them. When we say words like “No,” an fMRI scan shows a release of stress-related hormones. We become more anxious and irritable after hearing our own negativity. Long term exposure to the word “No,” even though we are the one saying it, can impact our appetite, sleep, and memory.
In fact, any kind of negative language has detrimental effects on our health. And the longer it goes on, the harder it is to stop. We find what we go looking for. Pessimists see everything as a problem. Optimists somehow seem to find more opportunities. It makes sense then, to consciously use positive language whenever possible.
But that’s not enough. It’s not enough to choose positive words over negative ones. We have to use positive language with much higher frequency to overcome the damage negativity causes. Our brains are geared to respond more strongly to negative inputs. Negative language triggers the primal fight-or-flight response, so we pay attention to it. Positive language doesn’t pose a threat, so it barely registers.
We have to change our tone, for our individual and collective good.
Let’s start today. Let’s declare a cultural revolution within the organization and commit to changing the way we speak to each other, our customers, and ourselves. Let’s commit to saying “Yes” instead of “No.” Let’s turn our language into a powerful force for good. What do you say?
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