By Reese Ramos

Ever wondered about the types of techniques that can be used to escalate or de-escalate conflict? One technique that can be employed is paying attention to your use of words in moments of conflict. Here’s a story that illustrates the power of words and their impact.

A not so long time ago there lived a little, old, wise woman. She lived on top of a mountain where people would come from all over the world looking for wisdom and answers to their problems. One day, she was sitting and teaching her new batch of pupils the power of words and how they were magical in that they could influence people and even hurt them by their mere utterance. One of her pupils stood up and said, “I disagree. Sticks hurt people. Stones hurt people. But words are not real. They have no power.” The little old lady stood up, and never having been questioned by a pupil before, pointed to the entrance of her hut and shouted, “Get out. You ignorant young man. I’ve known monkeys that are better pupils than you.” The young man, embarrassed, got up and left. The little old woman continued with her lesson and was later finishing with her pupils for the day when the young man came back. He was visibly shaken and his face was red. The tears could be seen going down his face as he spoke and said, “You’ve been my teacher. I can’t believe you said those things to me. I’ve lost trust in you.” The little, old, wise woman looked at her pupil, smiled and said, “Ah, it seems we are in agreement then that words do indeed have power over people. Words have the power to enslave, and you’ve let mere words get the better of you.”

The science validates what this little old lady said. A number of years ago research was conducted that monitored subjects’ brain responses to auditory and imagined negative words.  Their research indicated that there was an activation in the pain matrix of the brain to words that were associated with “pain.” The pain matrix is a term for the regions of the brain that are connected and respond to actual, physical pain. When we experience physical pain, our bodies produce stress-hormones that flood our system. Our brain does this so that it primes our bodies to react to the stimulus by getting us into that fight or flight state. Words, even in the absence of actual physical pain, appear to have the same impact on our brains and bodies just by their mere utterance. The little old lady was on to something.  

When we experience a conflict or a disagreement, our bodies react to the situation very similar to an actual physical altercation. We tense up. Our hearts start racing. Oxygen goes away from the brain to our muscles and extremities. In other words, we go into a reactive state. And often, the words being used by others (or even ourselves) are contributing to the conflict. Here’s the wonderful thing though; words can be so powerful that they can influence us and the way we see things.

In 2004 two municipalities in close proximity to each other had initiatives on their respective ballots on open space usage. Both municipalities were similar in demographics, available open space, good schools, etc. One initiative passed and the other didn’t. The only difference? How the ballots were worded: the winning ballot measure used positive words such as “create,” “trust,” “fund,” and “preservation,” while the losing ballot measure used negative words like “impose” and “tax levy.”

If you want to change how you experience conflict, change the words you use.

The next time you find yourself in a conflict, see if you can replace negative words with positive. For example, perhaps you want to use the word “excruciating” to describe a conflict; instead – perhaps try to use a more positive, less charged word, like  “trying,” or “challenging.”  Changing the words we use to make a conflict less charged can be difficult, because it requires us to step outside ourselves a bit to evaluate how we’re feeling, and then consciously use a word to describe our feelings that is less emotionally charged.  However, by doing so, we can truly improve our communication, as well as our relationships with others.

Remember, as the little old lady reminded us, words have the power to enslave us, and others, so we need to be mindful about how we use them.