September 4, 2013

Words That Empower You


I’ll never forget the first time I was called on in class after moving to Portugal. It was the ninth grade geography class. I studied hard. But, having recently moved from Canada, my teenage mind was still in French mode: I read in Portuguese, but my brain worked in French.

So after clearing my throat to talk, nothing intelligible came out. A huge laugh from everyone was the result, including the teacher! That day I understood (the hard way) that words play a big role in communication.

Similarly, language has a powerful influence on relationships. The words we use to express ourselves  and before that the words we use to think of ourselves and others  shape the way we feel when we relate to others.

When we feel empowered  calm, clear and confident  we relate to others in a rewarding and dynamic manner. When we don’t, relationships are unproductive and toxic. Words play a major role in this.

Here are 2 ways to use language to empower relationships:

1. When facing a challenge, use sentences where “I” is the subject instead of “you”. I’m not saying we talk about ourselves all the time. I mean that when we describe our reality with “I” sentences, the power to influence and change that reality increases greatly.

 “You” sentences tie your hands. You depend on others.

Imagine your coworker Emilia has the ball, the ball being anything you want. Consider the sentence: “Emilia has the ball and won’t give it to me.” Here, Emilia has all the power because she’s the subject: She has the ball; she won’t give it to you.

“I” sentences give you agency,
the power to shape your reality and relationships.

Now consider this: “Emilia has the ball and I haven’t found a way yet for her to give it to me.” Here, power is balanced: She has the ball but you haven’t yet found a way to get it. Now there’s something you can do (find a way), which means you have power. Subtle but very effective. 

2. In difficult situations, use the verb “to do” not “to be”: “to be” is disempowering because it focuses on the person; “to do” is empowering because it focuses on the event.

For instance, you turn to Emilia and say: “You are uncooperative”. This suggests a negative feature about her, which might provoke a defensive reaction on her part.

Instead “you did something uncooperative” might avoid that because it describes an action, not her. Moreover, “to be” suggests more permanent traits; while “to do” leaves room for things to change.

The language of “I” and “to do” is empowering.
It enables us to feel calmer, clearer and more confident.

Sometimes the influence of language is not evident and can be tricky to use. Leave a comment with what is on your mind. You can also send me an email to tobias@tobiasrodrigues.com. Looking forward to hearing from you.

By the way, there was someone in my geography class who actually thought my attempt was kind of cute: the pretty sister of one the real popular guys in school. It was my first “Portuguese” crush. J