“Think before you speak,” I remember my mentor and former boss Ardy Roberto telling me. At the time, I remember feeling hurt, even offended, because he said it in a cross manner when I had come to him in a light and hopeful mood and made a request.
Today, more than a decade later, I can still hear him saying it to me. And it still guides me in what I say, what I post on social media, what I write in my articles, and even the way I receive and digest other people’s words.
It still reminds me to be mindful, conscious, and empathic (which helps as an editor and writer who always thinks from the perspective of the receiver of the message).
I am almost certain all of us have, in one way or another, experienced receiving words that changed us for good — for better or worse. I remember being with someone who called me [something quite inappropriate] and later apologized for what he said because he was upset.
But those 4 words hit my soul so deeply that it changed me forever. It eventually led to the end of an 8-year relationship and marriage.
But apart from an emotional, soul-level effect is a clinical effect with an explanation. In an article titled “Words Can Change Your Brain” written by Therese J. Borchard on psychcentral.com, she writes: “A single negative word can increase the activity in our amygdala (the fear center of the brain). This releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupts our brains’ functioning. (This is especially with regard to logic, reason, and language.)”
Borchard cites the book of the same title written by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, MD, and communication, spirituality, and brain expert Mark Robert Waldman.
They write: “Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes.”
In my life, angry words caused me to lose my respect for the one I thought was the love of my life, the breakdown of our marriage, and the heartbreak of our families.
I am a manager and mentor with very high standards, and often find myself having a hard time tolerating mediocrity (and laziness). I like to surround myself with people who challenge me or who help make me a better person, but then I remind myself that even I started somewhere; and sometime in the past, someone gave me a break and a second chance.
I remember watching the movie “Pay It Forward,” whose message was, simply, when you receive kindness from someone, instead of paying that person back, give or pass on that kindness to someone else. This applies to words, too.
As a person, I have seen how a “Good morning,” “Thank you,” “How are you,” and “God bless you,” can make a stranger’s eyes light up. (I am especially mindful of saying these to maintenance, security, and sales personnel. They are not invisible. Let us acknowledge them.)
As a mentor, I have also seen how a “Great job!,” “Congratulations!,” “Well done!,” and “Perfect!” can boost a staff member’s morale that it motivates them not only to meet your expectations but go above and beyond.
It brings me back to our childhood: When our parents spoke lovingly to us, we were motivated and inspired to behave and study. The feeling was positive. When our parents spoke angrily at us, we were ashamed and confused. The feeling was negative, and probably planted the seed of insecurity that would grow with us to adulthood.
Words Have Power
I remember Filipino inventor Ernie Baron and the words he would use to close his segment in a nightly newscast: “Where there is knowledge, there is power.” As a communicator, journalist, and an aspiring life coach, I can say the same applies to words: where there are words spoken or written, lives are changed — both the speaker/writer’s and the listener/reader’s.
So how do we harness the positive power of words? Here are some pointers I have learned:
1. Start with yourself: speak kindly to yourself and send kind words your way
This applies especially to words you say out loud to yourself. Dr. Newberg says these positive words rewire our brain, affect our perception of ourselves, and our perception of others. So motivate yourself and congratulate yourself if you have to. It begins with you.
2. Practice empathy and think, “How would I feel if those words were said to me?”
Empathy does not always come naturally for everyone but it is something that can be learned simply by being human. Remember that all of us have a “why” behind actions that may not be good enough. So use words to find out and never assume. (My Rappler boss Glenda Gloria taught me that — for journalists, especially — it is a crime to assume.)
3. Live in the present and remember that digital is “forever”
Sure, digital allows us to quickly edit a mistake or to delete something we regret putting out there. But there is also such a thing as a screenshot, and whatever has been taken down may reappear someplace else and affect a person’s life forever, especially when it comes to job — even relationship — prospects.
I would not call myself an “influencer” when it comes to my number of followers on social media but I am happy to note that my friends, contacts, and network are extraordinary people in their respective fields. They work to make life better for others, both humans and animals.
I imagine how each day may be challenging for them, so I always make it a point to post positive messages or reminders of kindness and gratitude at the start and end of every day. Sometimes, it can be harder to see the good when the big picture is unstable and uncertain. But look more closely and you’ll see good things happening quietly.
4. Be mindful of how you feel when you speak positively and negatively
This is more evident when we say it out loud. Speak positively, hear it, feel it, and your entire day is filled with sunshine; no challenge too hard to overcome. Speak negatively, hear it, feel it, and there is suddenly something wrong in everything you see.
The secret is in realizing you have the power to make it so, starting with the power of choosing your words.