The Impact of Words


The impact of our words can be good or bad. Many of us will have heard the expression ‘sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you’. Whilst I understand the sentiment, I would like to contest this. From my experiences and of those I have worked with over many years, this is not true.

Injuries from ‘sticks and stones’ heal. Bruises and cuts repair although they may leave a scar, but words, if you let them, can be like poisoned darts that land on you and worm their way into your mind, seeping their poison for years, even the rest of your life. As leaders, whether in the home or work, we need to be aware of the impact of words and the harm they can do. Of course, the right words can have an incredibly positive effect; inspiring, motivating and changing people for the better.

“Every decision, action, behaviour & utterance by a manager contains a negative or positive stimulus potential”

David Freemantle – The Stimulus Factor

It Starts Young

It is fascinating watching my two-year-old granddaughter start to learn to speak and how much she mimics everything around her. Already you can hear the London accent creeping in! What is scary is the impact parents and others have and how quickly our words influence not just speech but attitude to life. Do we appreciate the true impact we have on the young?

Imagine the impact these words (which have been heard said) could have on a child. They are not the worst, I am sure.

  • “You haven’t as much sense as a mushroom”
  • “Your only asset are your eyes”
  • “If you weren’t so fat, you wouldn’t be so stupid”
  • “People like us don’t go to university”

The impact of these types of words can be felt later in life in the workplace, as well as the person’s self-talk. You may have to deal with the fallout, so empathy is important.

Creating a Safe Environment

Communication is the key skill for relationship building and people management.  Good communication can inspire people, ensure understanding, build rapport and bring about change. As a leader, you are the custodian of your workforce, so like a parent, you will influence the behaviour of your team. You can see how toxic leaders create a toxic team, whereas a trusting leader can generate a vastly different culture.

The culture of a business is built one conversation at a time, so leaders need to be very aware of what they are saying and how they are saying it. The eyes and ears of your staff are on you to ensure that what you say is congruent with what you do.  They will take their lead from you.  Communicating with the right impact in everything you do is essential to gain trust and ensure maximum attention to productivity and achieving your vision.

The words that we use help people to feel safe or not; and it is important for relationships, mental wellbeing, innovation, and productivity that your team feel that they are in a secure environment.

“If you want people to have big thoughts, they have to feel safe”

David Rock

On our recent bespoke Innovative Leader course, this was felt to be a key aspect for managers from a global company. It led them to take actions to improve their communication, so their teams feel they are in a trusting workplace. At the course review, a Senior Engineer explained what he had done as a result. In talking to his team about mental resilience, ‘stay healthy’ became a standard greeting and he and his team looked at what they could do to stay healthy. They decided that they could benefit from dealing with this topic in more depth. He spoke to everyone saying:

“I am not the expert, I don’t feel I could teach this topic, I would rather like to learn more and I am willing to dig into the subject. It would be great if others are willing too and we create a learning community to share our knowledge. I know, this might be difficult and not everybody might feel comfortable dealing with it, so participating in this approach is completely voluntarily. It is completely okay not to participate and there won’t be any disadvantages.”

As a result, he had praise from his team for tackling this emotive subject and the majority participated. They now have regular meetings on mental resilience with people engaged, researching information, and sharing their findings. The results are that:

  • They have shared internet articles, books, YouTube videos, exercises and advice.
  • They take time for emotions, even negative ones, and learn to respect and cope with them.
  • The advantages are still on-going.

All this change has come from the impact of words and how they have been applied.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s The Way That You Say It

We know that the impact of words is not just in what we say, but how we say it; the tone and body language that go with the words. Communication is a complex cycle, which can go wrong every step of the way. It is not what your intention is, but how people choose to interpret your message. You may have meant one thing, but it is how the other person receives your message that counts.

I honestly believe that you understood what you thought I said, but what you heard was not what I meant!!!


We also know that different people like to receive messages in different ways depending on their brain preferences. Some like lots of detail, whilst others want the briefest of messages. Some like a very structured conversation, whilst others want a more personal emotional format. Getting it right for the receiver will determine whether your words stick.

Praise ratio

One of the most important motivators is recognition and yet how often do we give genuine praise? I frequently hear delegates say that they ‘soon hear when they have got it wrong, but rarely when they have got it right’. This can be very demotivating.

A coachee told me that their ratio was probably 9:1 – that is negative to positive feedback. Research has shown that the most successful companies have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative. What is the ratio in your business?

We need negative feedback for growth, but again, how it is delivered is all important. Effective feedback is a topic that requires training and I have gained a lot of learning from attending Toastmaster International meetings and getting feedback on my evaluations of others. How good are you at giving constructive feedback?

Protecting Yourself

To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? 

William Shakespeare
Protect yourself from their behaviour

You may be the target of hurtful words and you can choose whether or not to take them personally. There is a choice to absorb them and let them cause you pain or let them pass you by. You can be offended by what someone says or you can be assertive and let the person know how you feel and try to stop them repeating the message. The only thing you have control over is your response to the words coming at you. If you don’t like the outcome you are getting, change your response.

Improving the impact of words

“Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?”

Shirdi Sai Baba

The impact of the spoken word is a massive subject, but here are a few tips to consider.

  1. Remember your words always have an impact, make sure it is the right one.
  2. Be aware of your intention, but more importantly, how your message might be received.
  3. Choose how you deliver your words in a way, with the right tone and body language, to suit the listener.
  4. Never assume understanding; check not only that they have understood the message but you have understood their response.
  5. Protect yourself by choosing not to take it personally when you are the target.

If you would be interested in improving the impact of the words you use and their delivery, please let me know.

Also published on Medium.

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