Words Matter: How Language Affects How You Relate, Part 1

Two colleagues sit at a table to have a discussion in an officeWords are powerful. While this is not breaking news, there is often little consideration given to the effects of language and how it is used. Further, beyond one’s intentions in using certain words to communicate in a positive or negative manner, those words can be interpreted in radically different ways. Needless to say, speaking and listening aren’t always as straightforward as they seem. As such, I would like to discuss certain aspects of language, particularly its materiality and structuring power. Through gaining a deeper understanding of these aspects of language, my hope is people may feel freer to respond and connect with others in a manner more nuanced and aligned with how they feel.

The first aspect of language to understand is its materiality. At its most basic level, what makes something “material” is its ability to affect both time and space around it. In essence, something that is material is real, substantial, and leaves a mark. Consider an asteroid traveling through space: it has substance, and when it comes into contact with something it leaves a mark (i.e., a crater).

Of course, a word alone has never left a crater in its wake; however, when certain words are spoken, either alone or in certain combinations, they can leave a substantial mark on the person speaking them or receiving them. Have you ever had a moment when something someone said to you “stuck”? Perhaps there is a special memory you can recall of a mentor giving you just the advice or inspiration you needed. On the other hand, maybe someone said something that figuratively knocked your legs out from under you (i.e., “You’re worthless,” etc.) and you’re still trying to get back up.

This, as an aside, forms the basis of nearly all concerns I hear in psychotherapy. Words may not make an observable mark, but they have materiality in their ability to leave a felt impact.

A second important aspect of language is its ability to structure or build a frame. When someone speaks, the words that are spoken create a framework through which to understand the conversation as a whole. For example, if someone starts a conversation by saying, “Don’t be mad, but …” or “I always mess this up,” what is one to assume the rest of the conversation will sound like?

Beyond affecting the recipient of words spoken, the framing nature of language can also impact the person speaking them.

Framing language sets the tone for how others may understand what is spoken. If an engineer was to say, “The stairs you are about to walk on seem sturdy, but I always mess that up,” would you be more or less likely to use the stairs? How does that framing statement affect your trust in the engineer and your confidence in the engineer’s work?

Beyond affecting the recipient of words spoken, the framing nature of language can also impact the person speaking them. This occurs as a self-statement, where the person who speaks is also the listener. In the above example, if someone states, “Don’t be mad …” as they prepare to say something, the implication inherent in this preface is the person speaking already feels shameful or bad about something that occurred, and is now predicting the person to whom they are speaking will be upset upon hearing about it. As discussed above, because language has an impact, framing what will be spoken in this manner may actually be more likely to elicit the unwanted response, something referred to as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Words, then, are powerful indeed. Because using words is an everyday occurrence, it is easy to forget the mark they can make or how subtly they can frame a conversation. In understanding how you use language, though, you can avoid obstacles that may create distance in relationships through certain ways of speaking. And that, ultimately, increases the potency of said words.

In Part 2 in this series, we will examine the ability of language to bring new experiential worlds into existence.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Trey Cole, PsyD, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Carol

    Carol

    March 9th, 2017 at 8:13 AM

    A lot of times I find that it might not be the actual word that is used but the way in which it is used that makes it sting a little bit more.

  • Katie R

    Katie R

    March 11th, 2017 at 6:51 AM

    that old saying about sticks and stones breaking bones but words not hurting me? not true at all. words can leave a far worse impact on us than a hit or a bruise ever could.

  • Mo

    Mo

    March 13th, 2017 at 7:23 AM

    I encounter people on a daily basis for whom I think they believe that language and the words they use are just an afterthought. They pay very little attention to their tone or to their grammar for heaven’s sake and they have no clue how uneducated that makes them sound.

    I have always been a firm proponent of fake it til you make it, and even on the days when you might not really be feeling it, you just smile and keep on going.

  • steven a

    steven a

    March 14th, 2017 at 7:36 AM

    Don’t you think that it is important to also note that body language can be a big hint to others in terms of what you are feeling and what you are saying to them without ever speaking any words?

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