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But that’s not what I meant. . .

January 10, 2011

I am disturbed in several ways by the tragic events in Tucson.  I’m reminded of life’s fragility, our vulnerability, and the power, for good or bad, of our connections.  What I have thought about most however is something much more subtle and pervasive.  The power of language.

Much of the discussion following the shootings has focused on our climate of caustic language.  The subtle, and not so subtle use of words that demean, attack, accuse, mislead, and stir up.  Many of the responses can be summed up with the statement, “That’s not what I intended.”

Thinking about the mix of intention and language took me back to my earliest days working in an adult day treatment program for individuals with severe mental illness.  I grew to have tremendous regard and appreciation for the people living life on a landscape of mental illness.  They will never know the power of the lessons I learned during our time together.  One of  the most powerful came randomly in the course of the daily activities.

A co-worker and I had been bantering back and forth during the noon meal.  She tossed a sarcastic comment my way and I responded by laughing and saying, “I’m gonna have to kill ya now.”  We laughed at the running joke, continued lunch, and our conversation.  What I didn’t know was that one of the clients walking by the table had heard my “threat” to my colleague, and took the words and my intention as exactly what I had said.  Fortunately the client expressed concern to my colleague and we had the chance to clarify the meaning behind the words.  I believe it is also fortunate that my experience often comes to mind to remind me of the power of the words I speak, the power of their impact when heard by others, and how their meaning can change during that process.

Wayne Dyer wrote a book titled The Power of Intention.  I would like to expand that title to “The Power of Intention Expressed.” The best of intentions poorly expressed, or poorly heard, can have hurtful consequences.  It is important to think before we speak, to think about how we speak, and to think about how our words may be heard and felt by others, those we know are listening and those we don’t know at all.

I would love to say that since that early error in judgement, all of my intentions have been spoken appropriately and without harm.  The bad news is I have had other opportunities to learn the lesson “again”.  The good news is the “lessons” urge me to think before I speak and to be sensitive to how my words land on those around me.

May we choose our words carefully in discussion and debate.  May we speak words of clarity, respect, encouragement, and kindness to our family, friends, colleagues, our advocates, and perhaps especially to our adversaries.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Susan ward permalink
    January 12, 2011 6:16 am

    Thank you for reminding us to be both gentle and civil. I fear that as dangerous as guns are, the words that often precede their use may be more dangerous still.

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