“Language shapes our behavior and each word we use is imbued with multitudes of personal meaning. The right words spoken in the right way can bring us love, money and respect, while the wrong words – or even the right words spoken in the wrong way – can lead a country to war. We must carefully orchestrate our speech if we want to achieve our goals and bring our dreams to fruition.” ~Dr. Andrew Newberg
Dr. Newberg’s theory on how language shapes our behavior has now been integrated into my passion for communication. I travel across the U.S. speaking to others, teaching them the value of paying attention to their words especially when dealing with individuals who are hurting. This practice of being completely conscious of one’s words is what I refer to as Mind Awareness Communication.
So what exactly is mind awareness communication? Sally Kempton, an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy, describes mindful communication as practicing right speech. She emphasizes that to “practice right speech it is essential to approach speaking as a form of yoga.”
I love this analogy because what comes to my mind is an evening at home when my husband and I decided we were going to start the practice of yoga. Slowly and carefully, we followed the DVD instructor into each pose, but eventually we reached Warrior 2. This particular pose requires intense concentration and focus, engaging your full body and mind. This is a very complicated task for someone like me, a multi-tasker who tries to get 90 minutes into every hour. Needless to say, right in the middle of this pose I heard my phone ding with a new text. I tried to hold the pose and simultaneously reach for my phone, but you can all imagine that that did not work out so well. My Warrior 2 pose fell apart as I did. I realized in that moment that it is impossible to be mindful and multitask at the same time, and the same goes for practicing mindful speech. One must be focused and fully engaged to communicate with mind awareness.
According to Sally the first stage in speech yoga or mind awareness communication is to become fully aware of the words you say. She recommends that you begin this exercise by spending a day eavesdropping on yourself—ideally, without activating your inner critic. It is important for each of us to notice our choice of words and the tone we use to say those words. This is an exercise in awareness. Eavesdropping on ourselves allows us to feel the “emotional residue” that our words create and how we feel after certain remarks.
The second stage is to understand that the yoga of speech is a type of self-inquiry in which we draw awareness to our words and what we are saying. You ask yourself: Why do I say what I say? What emotions am I holding deep inside that may burst forth as lies, sarcasm, or euphemisms? Am I truly saying what I mean? How do my words affect others? Sally encourages us to ask these specific questions so that we may become cognizant of any repressed emotional conflicts that lie beneath our speech. When you find yourself whining or speaking cruelly or just chattering to chatter, this may be an indication of underlying issues. She emphasizes the importance of owning and healing those issues. Sally believes that “Trying to speak from an authentic state of higher awareness without having done that healing is like building your house on a swamp. The underground water will eventually flood your basement, and your disowned pain will inevitably leak out through your words.”
The example of comparing speech to yoga is brilliant. Yoga is a practice in which the more awareness, concentration and commitment you have the better your poses become. Communication is the same. The more you become aware of your words and commit to communicating positively, the better your conversation and life will become.
Awareness and mindfulness in communication are also beautifully articulated by Suzanne Stevens in her article, Mindful Communication. In this article, Suzanne shares how her mindful communication practice started out of her own struggles with multiple sclerosis. The disease greatly affected her ability to speak clearly, slurring her words until she was virtually indecipherable. She met frequently with a speech therapist to improve her diction and pronunciation. But what really changed Suzanne’s life was beginning her practice of mindful speech. She practiced diligently in every encounter and after several months of being completely attuned to her own words, she realized that she “spewed lots of needless things.” Suzanne decided to give herself more time to construct her thoughts into words to get to the meat of what she actually wanted to express to others. She learned to listen more to others, to respond to them more appropriately without throwing out words to sound smart or feel included. Suzanne’s story is an example of where being mindfully aware of how you communicate can make all the difference in your life.
Mind Awareness Communication is not only practiced by individuals, but one of the most useful practices for advertisers. It has even been used in the marketing of fish. One of my favorite dishes of all time is Chilean Sea Bass. I absolutely love this fish in all its tenderness and savor every single bite. However, if I had seen the menu back in 1977, I am not sure I could have been persuaded to even order it. Back then, it was called Patagonian Toothfish! Chilean Sea Bass rolls off the tongue. It sounds inviting, pleasurable and palatable. Patagonian Toothfish sounds like a mouth full (no pun intended), like it would bite you back if you attempted to eat it. Not very appetizing. After marketing gurus decided to reinvent the name of the Patagonian Toothfish into Chilean Sea Bass, it began selling all over the world. Becoming consciously aware of how words impact even the digestive system is just another reason to be aware of the meaning of the words we choose.
In my presentation, “Oops I meant to say” on why words matter, I have a YouTube video I play of a blind homeless man sitting on a piece of cardboard asking for money. He has a small jar in front of him and a little cardboard sign that reads “I’m Blind. Please Help.” As the poor blind man sits with his jar and sign exposed, people continue to pass him by with little regard to his presence or his sign. Then out of nowhere a woman finally stops before him. She reaches for his sign, flips it over, and on the blank side writes, “It is a beautiful day, I wish I could see it.” This transformation of words miraculously changes the outcome for the elderly gentleman. When people read the sign they begin contributing money right and left. The reason they decided to help was because the words now had meaning. People could relate and feel what this man was missing by being blind. When we mindfully speak, we connect. This video depicts how our mindful choice of words can impact not only ourselves but others as well.
Now that you know the power and importance of words, as well as how to mindfully communicate, you’ll realize that when you change your words, you can change your life. You have the power to use words to your advantage and to the advantage of others in any collaboration session, for words are stronger than they seem. They can make or break any session, any conversation, and any relationship.
As a young woman witnessing my parents’ painful divorce, I didn’t know that a happy, even if imperfect, relationship could exist. But today, I have created it with my husband in our marriage by focusing wholeheartedly on communicating effectively from a loving place. My experience and education as a counselor taught me the importance of words and I was able to bring that home with me to make the strongest relationship I could. We try to speak as mindfully as possible to each other and recognize that our words can hurt, but also heal. We’re not perfect. We get it wrong sometimes. But then, with our words and our actions, we have the power to make it right again.
In your own career and your own life as a spouse, parent, sibling, child, and friend don’t underestimate the power of your words. Use them to create the career and the relationships that you’ve always wanted. Let your words guide you to success and happiness.