Humans speak their first fully-formed words sometime between 9 – 12 months of age. It’s a big deal, delighting our parents and launching us into the world of interactive communication. For the rest of our lives, words are the foundation of (almost) everything we do. Psychologist and author Dr. Jordan Peterson says, “If you can think, speak and write, you are absolutely deadly. Nothing can get in your way.”
If Dr. Peterson is right, then why are we so often inattentive to, and careless with, the manner in which we use our words? There are lots of possible answers, but a step back reveals a couple of big themes:
- Thoughtlessness and impulsivity
- Talking to much
Thoughtlessness and Impulsivity
Sounds harsh, right? Thoughtless and impulsive aren’t character traits that most of us aspire to, right? Yet when we think deeply, the terms are accurate. The key is to remove our cognitive bias, understanding that when we are thoughtless or impulsive, it doesn’t mean we are mean-spirited or stupid. It means we weren’t being mindful. We reacted. There was no gap between stimulus and response. Keep in mind that hearing is not listening; active listening requires temporarily setting your world aside and concentrating on the other person’s message and meaning. Evaluations, decisions and reactions can come later.
Talking Too Much
Talking too much is all about math. It’s the law of probabilities at work – the more words we speak or write, the higher the likelihood we will say or write some we regret. We also greatly increase the chances the audience for those words loses interest and tunes us out.
Do not underestimate the importance that words have when either strengthening bonds or fracturing them. Regardless of whether the words are spoken or written in a casual interaction, in a frustrating or disappointing situation, or during a critical review, be acutely aware of the power of your vocabulary. Our words matter, and we can always be more attentive to them and careful with them.
Making Our Words Matter
To be – as Jordan Peterson says – absolutely deadly, with nothing getting in our way – it’s important to recognize that “using our words” is something we must work to improve. The most successful people treat this as a craft they are honing continuously. Here are some suggestions to ensure that your words matter:
1: Pre-Game Your Conversation
This is, without question, one of the most valuable things you can do. Before speaking or writing – whenever possible – prepare mentally in advance. What do you plan to say? How do you plan to say it? Speak it out loud so you hear how it sounds. You’ll be amazed at how often it improves both the actual words you choose and the volume of words you use. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
2: Eliminate Unnecessary Words
Great communicators are masters of efficiency. They don’t waste words. Consider the word “just”, for example. Consider eliminating this word. Why? Because it diminishes whatever follows it. “I just called to say I love you.” (Thanks Stevie Wonder). “I just wanted to get an update on the project status.” Prefacing with “just” diminishes the importance of communicating love or getting that project update. Other words that fall into this category are “really,” “quite,” and “literally.”
3: Say What You Mean
Here’s another opportunity to remove cognitive bias from the equation. “Being direct” gets a bad rap. One can be direct in a manner that isn’t unpleasant. Being direct conveys confidence. It positions you as authentic and transparent. It saves time and reduces the risk of being misinterpreted. Consider the above two examples stated differently: “I called to say I love you” and “I want to get an update on the project status.” Those are much stronger statements that are received much differently in the absence of ‘just’ one word.
4: Use Simple Words
A master of brevity and wit, Churchill said, “Short words are best and old words when short are the best of all.” Simple words are sharp, clear and to the point. Our brains, eyes and mouths don’t struggle with them. Simple words get your message across fast. In today’s attention-deficit world where so many don’t want to read or listen, simple words are a competitive advantage.
5: Use Bullet Point Theory
Talking too much is often caused by social anxiety. Thinking and communicating around a small number of bullet points can be extremely helpful. Concise bullets are mental anchors that provide comfort and keep us from drifting too far off track with our words.
6: Practice the Two-Second Rule
This is easy to say and hard(er) to do. Count for two seconds before replying to something that’s said to you. There are several benefits to this practice, one of which is to allow yourself a moment to formulate a response – enough time (hopefully) to avoid one that is thoughtless or impulsive.
We spend a huge percentage of our waking hours with words. A University of California, San Diego study estimated the average American consumes over 100,000 words every day. The ambient noise level in our lives has never been higher. How do we break through so that we can be heard? By making sure our words matter.