The power of words

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Lynda K. Vu
  • 42nd Medical Operations Squadron commander
Most of us can remember a time when someone we didn't even know spoke kind words that lifted our spirits. On the other hand, all of us, I'm sure, can remember walking away from a conversation feeling dejected or offended. Often, it was due to a combination of what, when, and how something was spoken. The ability to control our words is definitely a personal discipline. Whether at home, or on the job, our words set the tone.

As Airmen and leaders, it is crucial for us to learn how to control our tongue. With the right words in the right setting, we can boost morale and foster the best teamwork. On the other hand, our words and how we deliver them can alienate and discredit us. So how do we get a handle on our words?

One aspect of gaining control of our words is understanding our internal influences. Our mental, emotional and physical health affects us significantly. When we are sleep deprived or stressed, we are less tolerant and patient - being less in control and more likely to spew out unintended words. Hurtful words may come out because we ourselves are feeling hurt, neglected, jealous or resentful. Our words might reflect our culture and upbringing; often, we don't realize that our "cultural words" might be offensive to others.

As Airmen and leaders, we uphold the Air Force Core Values - Integrity being the first, and most affected by our speech. Our words will reflect our integrity through honesty, transparency and precision in our speech. People will not question our integrity if we consistently say what we mean and mean what we say. Trashing other people behind closed doors fosters an environment of mistrust and insecurity in those who hear us; this culture is quite easily perpetuated and may cause significant damage to the relationships within our sphere of influence. Uninflated public praise and honest feedback behind closed doors is better when trying to address performance issues. Sending mixed signals to our subordinates will foster an environment of mistrust.

On the other hand, as Airmen and leaders, we can establish a healthy environment with our words. King Solomon expressed this thought well: "A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver" (Proverbs 25:11). Expressing genuine interest and concern can speak hope and life into a person. Our words can help mentor others to discover their full potential.

We have great opportunities to guide, encourage, and affirm a person's value during times of correction and discipline, career transition, and other significant life events in a person's life. Our words can even bring healing: "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (Proverbs 12:18). This requires us to take time to gain insight and to recognize when someone is wounded. But, the impact is worth all the effort. And, let's not forget the words "I'm sorry." An apology goes a long way to restoring relationships and mutual respect.

As maturing Airmen and leaders, we should find ourselves listening more and speaking less. Active listening allows us to gain valuable insight about the other person. It helps us to slow down our thoughts and focus on the person and not our reaction or response. Pausing before we speak helps us to appropriately filter our words and season them with tact and grace. Refraining from stray comments and inappropriately timed jesting also helps to set a tone of professionalism and respect.

As Airmen and leaders, we can all benefit from taking inventory of our words. Getting control of what, when and how we speak will improve the positive influence we have on those around us. Dealing with our own personal issues can help purge faulty thoughts and attitudes. This might require taking drastic steps to forgive and let go of offenses or change some culturally ingrained habits. Evaluating the specifics of what we say and determining to choose words that reflect uncompromised honesty and integrity can build trust and confidence within those in our sphere of influence.

Approaching people with an attitude of respect and dignity will help our choice of words which have great potential to heal and change the course of their lives forever. Saying "I'm sorry" when appropriate will improve relationships. And lastly, listening more and refraining from allowing unnecessary and poorly timed words will set a healthy, professional environment for everyone around.