Words Are Like Spells
I was fortunate growing up to have parents that were willing to expose me to all kinds of activities ranging from sports to music and drama. While in elementary school I spent time in community theater acting in several productions. However, my heart was broken in junior high when my school’s drama teacher told me I could not sing. My budding acting career was to be cut short, or end, because successful actresses were also singers.
Fortunately, I was starting to develop a strong game of tennis, and my father, a tennis coach himself, was willing to stand at the net for hours and hit balls to me. After every shot he would comment. “Good try,” “That’s the way,” “Great shot,” “Here comes another.” “Outstanding” and “Amazing” were two of his favorites. One day stands out in my memory as I was trying to learn a backhand drop shot, and I was showered with “Almost,” “So close!” “Try again,” “Better!” and “You’ll get the next one,” long after I was ready to give up.
As if words were spells, my father used them to positively influence everyone around him.
When I announced that I wanted to be a dog trainer, and forego the engineering degree he had paid for, he was encouraging, supportive, and celebrated every success. When my dad told me I could do something, I believed him, and he never told me that I could not or would not succeed at anything that I pursued.
At the Dog Trainers Workshop, I do not allow owners to use the verb “to be” to describe their dog. They are not allowed to say “He is anxious,” or “He is scared,” or “He is aggressive.” We only use the verb “to act.”
When an owner says “He is acting anxiously,” or “He is acting aggressively,” their outlook is changed. If the dog is only acting that way, his behavior can be altered!
This bit of wisdom came from my mother, who would look her children in the eye and say, “I love you but I don’t much care for how you are acting!”
Words are extremely powerful instruments. Words cannot necessarily change present reality. I would never suggest to a student that her injured dog “is going to be alright,” when I have no way of knowing that to be true. However, words can certainly influence outcomes, and shape -- though sometimes slowly -- future reality. I would encourage that student to follow the protocol of the veterinary rehabilitation specialist to attempt to achieve the best outcome. That power to shape future reality should make us far more attentive to the words we use every day.
The principle of encouragement as a great teacher is not new, of course. “Instruction does much, but encouragement everything," said von Goethe. And the idea of words as powerful instruments is described strikingly more than 2000 years ago in a passage from the book of James: "How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!" and, continuing on from a less formal translation "A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it...This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!"
Why is it so hard for us to speak encouragement into one another’s lives? Why is it simpler to point out flaws and mistakes than it is to tell someone what we admire about them? Is pointing out someone else’s gifts somehow discrediting our own? Or worse yet, embarrassing?
Teaching obedience classes four nights a week for 30 years has given me unlimited opportunity to point out mistakes to my students. In the intense moments of attempting to give a student information and skills, it is so easy to focus on their errors and take all the good they are doing for granted.
However, taking time to tell a child struggling to walk a dog, “You look like a professional! I couldn’t do it any better!” or a student trying to balance verbal praise and reward, “Your timing is perfect!” lights up their eyes and relieves their tension. Confidence breeds more action, more effort, and brings more success -- which builds more confidence.
It's not simply as a teacher that I can struggle to balance my criticism and encouragement.
Perhaps there is no environment more serious, for an adult, than the workplace. Work, after all, is the seat of our livelihoods, our lifestyles, and often our significance. When employees, co-workers, vendors, or bosses make mistakes, those mistakes can be very serious, threatening our income, the stability of the organization where we work, and even our sense of worth.
So it's easy, as a business owner and entrepreneur, for me to be intense and serious about doing quality work for clients. It's easy for me to slip into pointing out everything an employee needs to improve.
There are two questions, though, that are good balancing questions for both encouragement and criticism. Whether you are teaching, or leading, or even following, when you are called on to assess work or skills, think of these two questions:
1) What went well today [or with this project]? What did we do right?
2) What might we have done better? How could we improve this the next time?
Asking the first question reminds us all to find something to like. And it also lets people know what they should continue doing. After all, the last thing we want an employee or vendor to do is stop doing the good thing!
Asking the second question is the most positive way of critically assessing a process, outcome, or goal. And it assumes that the next time, we'll do better. Because there will be a next time, and today's failure, or lower quality outcome does not predict the future.
Not too long ago, I was standing in church singing the closing hymn. When the service ended, the woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I love sitting near you in church. You have an amazing voice. I wish you would join the choir, but as long as you are here in the congregation, I will try to sit near you so I can hear you sing.” I was immediately embarrassed that I had been singing loud enough for anyone to hear because, as I’ve known all my life, “I can’t sing.”
However, some time has passed, and she continues to smile and catch my eye at church. Now, I’ve actually considering voice lessons to explore my new found skill.
Words are like spells. Use them encouragingly and celebrate the influence you can have.
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