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One summer night at an all-girls summer camp, the campers were gathered around in a circle for their nighttime devotions. The counselor asked if any of the girls wanted to share something that had impacted her that day. One camper raised her hand and said a girl from another cabin had said something that hurt her feelings, and she was really upset about it.
The camp counselor went to the bathroom to grab a tube of toothpaste, then took the tube and squeezed out just a bit. She then tried to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but it just created a mess. Then she squeezed the tube even more, pushing more toothpaste out and creating even more of a mess, but none of it would go back into the tube.
The counselor told the campers, “This toothpaste represents your words. Once you say something you want to take back, it’s nearly impossible and only creates a mess. So think before you speak, and make sure your words are going to good use before you let them out.”
When I was young, kids used to say, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Wrong! The saying should be “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can really hurt you.” Words hold tremendous power. They can shatter or make a career, kill or nurture a relationship, or break or heal a heart.
American poet Carl Sandburg said, “Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can only be forgiven, not forgotten.”
There are all kinds of words: words of wisdom, words of encouragement, fighting words, words to live by, foreign words, simple words, big words, naughty words, strong words, last words. They all serve a purpose. Choose the right words for your situation.
Research has found that the people who talked trash about someone else unwittingly painted themselves with the same brush. On the bright side: The same is true when the talk is positive.
It’s much better to heed the advice of Sigmund Freud: “Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decision. Words can arouse the strongest emotions and prompt all men’s actions.”
In my case, my mother, who was a teacher, set me straight around the tender age of 12. At that time, my idea of vocabulary upgrade consisted of adding to the string of cuss words I could say without repeating myself. A colorful skill, but of limited value in mixed company, put me at personal risk within the Mackay household.
Over the years, I have learned the value of using the right words at the right time. I choose words every day. When speaking, writing, requesting and deciding, I use some words, and not others. You do, too. The words we choose create meaning and mission in our lives. Every word and phrase you choose conveys mood, tone and meaning.
Remember, customers and colleagues come in every possible stage of enthusiasm, anxiety, understanding and confusion. Pay attention! When you are offering, asking, responding, explaining, invoicing, installing or advising – choose the words you use with care.
“Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them,” said Andy Rooney, radio and TV personality.
Here are three simple tips to consider:
1. If you don’t have anything positive to say, it’s better to say nothing at all. Take your emotions out. Too often we want to get our opinion out and slam the other person or try to get even. Social media has really exacerbated this problem.
2. Be aware of your influence. This is especially true for authority figures like role models, parents and teachers. Your words mean a great deal. To most people you might be just another person, but to that person you might be the world.
3. Respond rather than react. Too many people say things off the cuff and then realize they can’t take them back. It’s like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. If you want your words to work for you, work for your words. The result will pay off big time.
Mackay’s Moral: Your words say a lot about you: choose them wisely.
Reprinted with permission from nationally syndicated columnist Harvey Mackay, author of the New York Times #1 bestseller “Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,” and the new book “We Got Fired!…And It’s the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us.”