There is an old adage: It’s not what you say – it’s how you say it. Whether you are speaking to an intimate partner or family member, a neighbor, a colleague, or to a crowd, the energy behind your words shines through. How you say what you have to say matters.
When you reflect on the people who have had the greatest impact on you, your first memory or thought is probably more about who they were—their presence and how you felt when you were with them—than about the specifics of what they did or said. We tend to remember feelings before details. Impact occurs not so much because of what happened, but because of how we felt when it was happening and afterwards. The depth and quality of that impact comes from how deep the initial feeling went inside of us, and whether that feeling lasted for a few moments, for days, for weeks, or perhaps even for years.
In other words, the literal actions or sequence of events as they unfold are often not what makes the greatest impression on us. Instead, it’s what happens inside of us—our physical and emotional experience. Sometimes that feeling is fleeting—we move on quickly. Other times, it lingers for a longer time. And then there are those moments, whether incredibly joyful or tender or painful, that feel like they were pressed into our cells.
In a world increasingly designed for speed, it is more critical than ever to be aware of the power of energy and intention behind our words and actions. Especially when so much of the “conversation” is happening in sound bites via text or voice messages or single-sentence emails.
For some things, a few words is really all that is needed:
meet you at 6—Sarah’s Kitchen
Or perhaps you are sending love notes on the fly that bring a smile and warm tingle to the lucky one receiving your message:
can’t stop thinking of you—missed you all day—until tonight xoxo
However, when life moves quickly, situations can more easily take unexpected turns. Tensions mount, emotions escalate. Soundbite communication can be confusing, frustrating, and even hurtful. It has become too easy to fire off a text or voice message without considering the impact of how the message will be received:
something came up have to cancel
Just left the meeting. Why didn’t you tell me the truth?
In all communication, there is a feeling, an energy, an intention, a motivation behind our words or actions. Even if that feeling or energy is neutral. While we can’t control how other people will react or respond to our words or actions, we can choose how we convey the message.
We can pause to consider the bigger picture of what is happening and what is important to us in our relationships with the people involved. We can take a step back, whether for a moment or an hour or a day, to sense our best response. My mother taught me, “When you’re angry, count to 10 before you say a word.”
Being aware of our own emotions in the moment and pausing to consider how our words or actions will land can make a big difference. Being conscious and intentional in our words and actions matters, whether we are interacting digitally or face-to-face. At the least, we can expand the “soundbite” to include a bit more clarity, context, or reassurance for the receiver.
When tensions are high, perhaps the best use of the soundbite message is simply to request a live voice conversation and leave it at that. A Zoom or Facetime call or, if possible, sitting down together in-person or going for a walk, can shift the dynamics. We can then see one another and hopefully read one another’s energy and intentions more clearly. There is no guarantee that everything will get resolved in one conversation, yet it can be a start. In Michele Obama’s words, “It’s hard to hate up close.”
Awareness is Everything
The 14th-century Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “The words you speak become the house you live in.”
An ancient Dakota proverb says, “We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.”
Awareness is key. These four levels of awareness can help us pay attention to the whole picture:
- Awareness of what is happening inside us—our own feelings and thoughts—and being honest with ourselves about where those thoughts and feelings are coming from.
- Awareness of multiple layers—that there is more to the situation than what we see or feel on the surface. Consider the bigger picture.
- Awareness of perspectives, thoughts, and feelings of other people involved.
- Awareness of our own motivations and intentions, and the potential consequences of our words and actions.
When your intentions and motivations are fueled by personal agendas or unprocessed anger, fear, or frustration, people sense that. Instinctively, they become cautious and wary. Yet when your intentions and motivations are benevolent and supportive, people can feel that, too, and therefore, are more likely to be receptive.
Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a friend, a neighbor, a manager, a policy-maker, or a CEO, how you say what you have to say matters. All the time. When life is moving fast, let these four questions be your guide:
- Who am I being while I am saying what I’m saying? (Or doing what I’m doing?)
- How is that impacting other people?
- How does that feel?
- Therefore, what do I choose?
It’s not what you say – it’s how you say it.
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Related Blog Posts:
- Meditation for Changing Times: Preparing Intentional Spaces
- How to Stand Tall and Keep Going When Challenges Keep Coming
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