If you can’t be kind, at least have the decency to be vague.
I grew up with a dangerous myth. I was told that: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
How stupid! Words are one of the most powerful forces on earth. People, relationships, even nations are built up or brought down by words.
Words are powerful because they can never be taken back. Once spoken, they can’t be retrieved. They can’t be pulled back into the mouth, and they can’t be extracted from someone else’s memory.
It’s like the old Jewish teaching that compares the tongue to an arrow. A condemned man is to be shot with an arrow, but he asks for the sword instead. The condemned man knows that once the executioner has unsheathed his sword, he could beg for mercy. The executioner might be persuaded to return the sword to its scabbard. But once the arrow has been shot, it cannot be returned.
Words are the same way. Words are powerful because they can never be taken back.
Of course there are many different types of words, but two of the most destructive are blame and gossip. They destroy personal relationships, and they destroy work teams. They block understanding, prevent problem solving, and demoralize their recipients. They’re just plain bad news no matter how you slice it.
Let’s start with blame. I’ll talk about gossip next week.
I remember one woman who wrote for advice. In her e-mail she complained about her husband. She even listed all of his faults. Then she said, “I really told him off the other day. He’ll treat me better or else!”
As her letter went on, it was quite obvious she was very angry. Her tone was one of blame-blame-blame, what was wrong with her husband, and how he had caused all of her problems. Surprisingly, she finished her letter by asking how she could have a better relationship with her husband.
I told her that indeed her husband sounded like a very difficult person. However, her blame would never improve their situation. It never does.
In fact blame is at the center of many male-female conflicts. Rather than work at understanding one another, people of the opposite sex often blame each other when there is a problem.
That came out in one college professor’s classroom. On the blackboard he wrote, “Woman without her man is a savage.” He instructed his students to punctuate the sentence correctly.
The males wrote: “Woman, without her man, is a savage.”
The females wrote: Woman! Without her, man is a savage.”
Blame doesn’t work because it bankrupts the other person. Psychotherapist Jonathon Robinson talks about that in his book, Communication Miracles for Couples. He talks about the “self-esteem bank account.”
By way of explanation, Robinson says the average person should have $10 in his self-esteem bank account. When his account is empty, bad things happen. After all, no one can stand to be bankrupt for very long.
Quite often, the bankrupt person gets violent. He tries to “take” some self-esteem “dollars” from someone else by blaming the other person for his problems. And in some dysfunctional way, the blame makes him feel a bit better.
Unfortunately, blame makes the other person feel attacked, who then proceeds to blame and insult in self-defense. He says something like, “You think I’m selfish? You should look in the mirror.”
Blaming is not an effective way to get another person to listen to you or work with you on solving a problem. In fact, just the opposite is needed.
Everyone needs the three A’s: acknowledgement, appreciation, and acceptance. Without those three things, people get defensive and refuse to let you in. But when you give someone the three A’s, his self-esteem bank balance goes up. And as his balance goes up, he will naturally become more loving, more giving, and more willing to listen.
I teach a program on “Cooperation and Conflict: Working Together Instead of Coming Apart.” In that program, I teach you how to get the full and willing cooperation of others, how to resolve a conflict easily and constructively, and how to use the right words to get the best results.
Instead of blame, I teach feedback skills. Family therapist, Virginia Satir said it best. She said, “The challenge is how to give feedback so it comes as a gift rather than criticism.”
Words are powerful. They can’t be taken back. So choose them wisely. And as you choose, be very careful of using words of blame. They almost never work.
Action: Select a difficult person in your life. Then, for one month, refrain from any blame or criticism of this person. Don’t say negative things to this person, and don’t say negative things to other people about this difficult person.
Instead, apply the 3 A’s of acknowledgement, appreciation, and acceptance to this difficult person. Do it sincerely, and do it sporadically over the next month.
Then, at the end of the month, check out the results of your experiment. I’ll bet that person has become less difficult.