Words Do Hurt

Photo Credit: National Museum of African American History & Culture


Written by Jerome Offord Jr., Ph.D.

Words, they do hurt!  When I was a child, I repeatedly heard the old-time saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This saying was reflective of the supposed toughness and endurance of the American spirit and was recited by children across the country for generations. Within my own family, this proverb was employed as a deflection to bullying. The verse had a peculiar yet straightforward message: your intimidator cannot harm you unless they resort to physical violence. 

However, when words degrade, embarrass, incite hate, or are microaggressive, they demonstrably cause harm and pain. The amplification of harmful words can spawn civil unrest and catalyze violence. Look no further than the recent terrorism that transpired on the U.S. Capital. Five people lost their lives in that attack on our democracy, and perhaps others were injured during the insurrection. That insurrection was spawned and fueled by the ‘mere words’ of a scorned national leader. I don’t pose that we have to agree on everything; and I, for one, can appreciate the differing views, backgrounds, and convictions of others when we all come together for candid and constructive conversation. But constructive conversations will only happen if we are willing to communicate authentically without resorting to hyperbole for dramatic effect or forced radicalism for the sake of garnering attention. The healthy exchange starts with a willingness to consider and reconsider things beyond our biased lenses.

As I submit this post on the 92nd birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am reminded that Dr. King himself was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent beliefs and mentored by Howard W. Thurman, a believer in social justice. Dr. King had many great ideas, and those ideas manifested into great words that came together to create profound speeches, such as the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. That MLK had mentors of his own, however, is a reminder that helpful words – such as those that call for us to resolve conflict peacefully – can inspire the next generation of leaders and bring people to action. We cannot allow only harmful words to hold this power. This is the key to staying the course when systemic racism rears its ugly yet enduring and persistent heads.

As leaders, we must continuously identify and address our biases and understand that doing so is a lifelong process. There is no one training, podcast, book, or other resources that we can engage to free us of our biases magically. Bias shows up in our actions, communication, and workplace, often unbeknownst to us. But we can – and should –identify and address our biases.

To help identify and address our biases, I pose using the Nonviolent Communication model (Observe, Feelings, Needs, and Requests).  Dr. Marshall Rosenberg (2015) created this model to help individuals find commonality, kindness, and mutual respect, without judgment or evaluation, when communicating.  He advises readers to observe what is happening in situations, express their feelings about it without judgment or evaluation, effectively say what we need in connection to what we are feeling, and then request that which is required to honor you.

As leaders, let us find ways to use our words effectively and fully walk-in conviction of bias-free actions. I leave you with this quote to help inspire you on the journey.

"In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair." -Howard W. Thurman.

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