Powerful Words Part 1

There has been so much talk in the media about how negative rhetoric (talk meant to persuade) may have played a role in the tragic deaths and injuries that occurred in Tucson, AZ this past week.  While the jury is still out concerning the shooter in a lot of ways, there is no denying that words have power.  “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” Proverbs 18:21.

People: husbands and wives; fathers and mothers; sons and daughters; employees, congregants, and friends; are helped or hurt, saved or slain, by words.  Words, sounds, the way they are arranged, the subtle connotations, or the explicit meanings communicated, all cooperate or conspire together to make or break their recipient.  While the hearer bears some responsibility for trying to understand that which is communicated, the speaker bears responsibility for the conveyance of understanding, and can hardly blame the hearer if the conveyance is without thought or consideration.  There is no room for having one’s “brain in neutral and mouth in overdrive.”  Not if understanding is the goal.

This is particularly important, in my experience, between parents and children.  Modeling effective, positive communication is such a powerful tool, not only to gain compliance and cooperation, but to teach that child how he is to communicate with others.  The simplest example, and one I have encountered many times, is a parent that complains of a child that curses, when the parent also curses, or allows such language in the home often enough that the child picks it up.  There is no amount of lecturing or punishment for cursing that will cause it to stop, unless there is ownership of the communication that has modeled cursing.

Communication problems are often more subtle than this, but it amounts to the same conclusion: communication is learned through modeling and observation.  Let’s break down two important aspects of verbal communication in order to develop intentional, positive communication.

  • Semantics: meaning.  Words are often chosen to convey a certain meaning.  If I receive a traffic “citation,” to my wife, that is a “ticket.”  The formal air of the first word creates less tension in the hearer, as opposed to the second word, which sounds more negative, though both words convey the same thing.  Similarly, one may make a “big” mistake, or a “gigantic” mistake.  “Big” is not a big word, but it symbolizes largeness.  However, “gigantic,” or a slang like “ginormous,” signifies largeness with a large, imposing word.  Semantics can be used with others to convey a message that shadows a more negative reality, or that exaggerates a less severe situation, based on the intention of the speaker.  When used sincerely and truthfully, connotation is effective in producing a desired result; when I hospitalize a child in the course of my crisis work, I truly mean that they are going for “treatment” at a “psychiatric hospital,” not to be “locked up” at a “psych ward.”  Connotation must be sincere and appropriate, however.  If a child is behaving in a delinquent manner, it is very appropriate to say that the consequences may include being arrested, locked up, detained, or any number of other words that convey the seriousness of the matter.
  • Pragmatics: appropriate application of language.  While semantics looks at the meaning a word symbolizes or signifies, pragmatics examines the appropriateness of language across contexts.  In my work as a crisis counselor, I inevitably see young people who have been told that I am coming to “lock them up” or “send them away.”  I have to re-frame that notion into “hospitalization for treatment,” as a “help, not a punishment.”  What purpose does it serve to tell a child of any age that they may be “locked up?”  Only to cause stress, anxiety, anger, and defiance.  Similarly, they are not being sent to a “psych ward,” a “loony bin,” or a “crazy house.”  These are all socially inappropriate, not only for the specific situation, but for any situation in which inpatient care is being considered.  While this is true, for a parent who has had to admit a child to a psychiatric hospital, it may be expressed in private to a confidence that the parent regrets “locking up” that son or daughter without the social or behavioral consequences of having said it to the child or in the child’s hearing.

Semantics and pragmatics are often methods of manipulation, but compliance based on manipulation is short-lived and only reproduces manipulation.  Honest, appropriate, considerate, direct communication can be maintained no matter how frustrating or dire the situation.


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