By Gerry Murray. 18-10-2020
(Scroll down for a laugh)

"Words are anchors for experience - they induce states and they reflect ideas and understanding.” ~ Joseph O'Connor

Words are one of the key building blocks of conversations. 

However, many people don’t really scrutinise the words they choose to convey their experiences. Moreover, many are not aware of the impact their words have on others. This is largely because these choices are mostly made out of conscious awareness.

On the one hand, this can lead to all sorts of issues including creating unresourceful states, misunderstandings, disagreements and poor performance.

On the other hand, it can lead to resourceful states, embracing of ideas, shared understanding and high performance. 

Being able to choose the appropriate words is a valuable skill. 

Beware of labels

Words attempt to convey to others the deep structure of our experiences. However, they will always be an incomplete representation and filtering of that experience. Also, words are not the things they represent - they’re just labels we choose based on our filters, one of which may be the language we speak.

For example, for a French speaker a chair is une chaise, for a German it’s ein Stuhl and for a native Irish speaker, it would be an cathaoir. The object remains as it is, regardless of the label. 

This also applies to the use of labels to describe other people, which is frequently done by psychometric or personality tests. Archetypes or colours are easy to apply but are potentially misleading and reduce people down to a label when we’re all so much more than that! 

This is one of the reasons why we use the Harrison Assessment tools that label behaviours, not people when working with organisations. 

The Power of Words

I encountered a useful example of the power of words on Thursday that I will share with you to illustrate this. 

I had to go into hospital for an MRI scan. If you’ve never had one, it’s an impressive-looking machine and set-up, accompanied by several radiographers and a doctor. 

After lying on the bed they injected needles into both arms and attached a blood pressure device to my right arm. They then put a relatively heavy type of cover on my chest that appeared to contain some of the scanning equipment and they fastened it firmly to the bed. They put headphones on me with spa-type music playing. I was completely immobilised. You can probably imagine what this was like. 

And, then came the moment when language took over…

One of the radiographers placed a device in my right hand and then said in a well-meaning and helpful way: “This is an alarm for emergencies. You can press it especially if you feel too claustrophobic in there.” 

Up until this point, I had not really considered the concept of claustrophobia! 

Immediately, my mind and body created the sensation of claustrophobia, aided partly by the mask I was wearing and the sensation of being bound to the bed. My heart started to race and my breathing got shallower and faster. I was having what seemed to be a panic attack. And, I hadn’t even entered the machine! 

Ironically, or maybe, fortunately, I had just been listening in the waiting room to a podcast where a leading neuroscientist was explaining what he considered to be the most effective ways to reduce stress and remain calm. It was all stuff that I’d been practising and teaching for years. And, right now, it became more important than ever! 

I asked the medical team to give me a few minutes and eventually I was able to compose myself and entered the MRI scanner for a 35-minute examination. 

Why is this important? 

Your choice of words invoke sensory-based internal representations in both yourself and others and this has a direct impact on your state and the state of others. An internal representation can have any combination of images, sounds, touch, smells and tastes within it. 

I bet you were able to form a representation of my experience on the scanner bed as I described it above. You may even have had that claustrophobic response - and there’s not an MRI scanner in sight! 

So, we can use this learning to ensure that what we say to ourselves creates the most useful states for what we want to achieve. And, likewise, to ensure that what we say to others does the same for them. 

For example, if my outcome is to help a colleague, friend or a child learn something that will help them develop, grow and achieve a certain result then there’s quite a difference between framing/stating it as something that is “very difficult” versus something that “is not so easy at the beginning”. These phrases invoke different states and these states will affect, among other things, our motivation and subsequent behaviours or lack of behaviours. 

What can you do? 

As an exercise, spend some time each day paying attention to words that you use and the states they produce in yourself and others. Notice the responses you get and use this feedback to get even better at this. 

And, you might even notice that literally changing words can change minds…



Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful.  People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever.
When we’re apart I can be forever happy – will you let me be?
Yours, Gloria

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