The Arizona Republic

Heed the power of words

- Harvey MacKay Columnist

One summer night at an all-girls summer camp, the campers were gathered around in a circle for nighttime conversati­on. The counselor asked if any of the girls wanted to share something that had happened that day that impacted her. One camper raised her hand and said a girl from another cabin had said something that hurt her feelings, and she was really upset about it.

The camp counselor went to the bathroom to grab a tube of toothpaste, then took the tube and squeezed out just a bit. She then tried to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but it just created a mess. Then she squeezed the tube even more, pushing more toothpaste out and creating even more of a mess, but none of it would go back into the tube.

The counselor told the campers, “This toothpaste represents the words you speak. Once you say something that you want to take back, it’s nearly impossible to do so, and only creates a mess. So think before you speak, and make sure your words are going to good use before you let them out.”

I remember when I was young and kids used to say, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Wrong! I think the saying should be “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can really hurt you.” Words hold tremendous power. They can shatter or make a career, kill or nurture a relationsh­ip, or break or heal a heart.

There are all kinds of words: words of wisdom, words of encouragem­ent, fighting words, words to live by, foreign words, simple words, big words, naughty words, strong words, last words. They all serve a purpose. Choose the right words for your situation.

Research has found that the people who talk trash about someone else unwittingl­y paint themselves with the same brush. On the bright side: The same is true when the talk is positive.

In my case, my mother, who was a teacher, set me straight around the tender age of 12. At that time, my idea of a vocabulary upgrade consisted of adding to the string of cusswords I could say without repeating myself. A colorful skill, but of limited value in mixed company and one that put me at personal risk within the Mackay household.

Over the years, I have learned the value of using the right words at the right time. I choose words every day. When speaking, writing, requesting and deciding, I use some words, and not others. You do, too. The words we choose create meaning and mission in our lives. Every word and phrase you choose conveys mood, tone and meaning.

Remember, customers and colleagues come in every possible stage of enthusiasm, anxiety, understand­ing and confusion. Pay attention! When you are offering, asking, responding, explaining, invoicing, installing or advising -- choose the words you use with care.

“Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them,” said entertaine­r Andy Rooney.

Here are three simple tips to consider:

1 If you don’t have anything positive to say, it’s better to say nothing at all. Take your emotions out. Too often, we want to get our opinion out and slam the other person or try to get even. Social media has really exacerbate­d this problem.

2 Be aware of your influence. This is especially true for authority figures like role models, parents and teachers. Your words mean a great deal. To most people, you might be just another person, but to certain people, you might be the world.

3 Respond rather than react. Too many people just say things off the cuff and then realize they can’t take them back. It’s like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. If you want your words to work for you, work for your words. The result will pay off big time.

Mackay’s Moral: Your words say a lot about you -- choose them wisely.

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He can be reached through his website, www.harveymack­, by emailing or by writing him at MackayMitc­hell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapoli­s, MN 55414.

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