The First Step for Effective Communication: Reclaiming the Power of Words
Tim Muehlhoff - September 9, 2015
The essential first step in crafting a difficult conversation is to reclaim a healthy respect for the power of words. When preparing to engage another in a difficult conversation we must acknowledge and anticipate the impact our words could have on another. However, being immersed in a technologically driven culture, the sheer amount of words being communicated is unprecedented and can easily cause us to forget the power of words.
The essential first step in crafting a difficult conversation is to reclaim a healthy respect for the power of words.
Facebook has over a billion active users worldwide and is available in more than 70 languages. If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest in the world only lagging behind China and India. Today, users on Twitter are sending over 200 million Tweets per day, or 2,315 a second. YouTube reports that over 4 billion videos are uploaded each month and that in 2011 it had more than 1 trillion views, or around 140 views for every person on Earth. Internet communication produces enough information to fill seven million DVDs every hour, with annual consumption predictions for 2015 at 966 exabytes. To put this in perspective, a study by UC Berkeley estimates that if “all the words spoken by human beings” were put into text form they would take up merely five exabytes.
Has the overabundance of words caused us to ignore the power inherent in our words as we continue to add more words? Language is like a loaded gun, notes linguist Dwight Bolinger; it can be fired intentionally, but it can wound or kill just as surely when fired accidentally. The ancient writers who comprise the book of Proverbs would agree with Bolinger’s assessment of the power of words. Utilizing vivid metaphors, these ancient writers strive to describe the potentially devastating power of words. “Reckless words” are presented as a “piercing sword” (12:18). A word, spoken in the wrong way, can “break a bone” (25:15). A person’s spirit is easily crushed by a deceitful tongue (15:4). Just as the “north wind” can bring driving rain, so a “sly tongue” evokes an angry response (25:23). In plotting evil, a scoundrel’s speech is like a “scorching fire” (16:27). Not only can negative words separate close friends (16:28), but a whole city can be disrupted by mockery (29:8). Old Testament scholar, David Hubbard, argues that what these ancient writers want us to most understand about language is that the tongue is “literally a lethal weapon—to others and ourselves.”
Language is like a loaded gun, notes linguist Dwight Bolinger; it can be fired intentionally, but it can wound or kill just as surely when fired accidentally.
How do you respond to what you’ve read?
In a techno world saturated with words have you started to take your words for granted? If all language is like a lethal weapon, how careful are you with words when talking with close friends? When speaking to my spouse do I mostly speak words of life, or words of death (Prov. 18:21)? Answering these questions is the first step to crafting engaging and healthy conversations with those we love.
Tim is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, and is the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project which seeks to reintroduce humility, civility, and compassion back into our public disagreements. He is the co-host of the Winsome Conviction Podcast and his latest book is, Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church (IVP)