We all know that words have an effect on us. But what is not so well understood is that words can be said with deliberate intent, or just out of habit, yet their resulting message can be equally effective for good or bad. For example, if you’re casually overheard saying, “Oh, John. He’s not really up to it. Hasn’t the talent.“ And John, as a little boy – or even as a sensitive young man – hears that, he may become quite despondent. Worse, if you’re an authority figure in that boy’s life, he may actually believe you and give up on doing something which would have made his life a lot different had he not heard your remark. “Oh, he’s obviously tone deaf.” “He can’t hold a tune.” “Math will never be his strong point.” And lo and behold the subjects of these off hand remarks never do pursue the passions they thought they’d like to pursue…all because they believed what they were told. Other people’s opinions were stronger than their own.
So that is the negative side of things. Be very careful what you say about other people, particularly the young. You could inadvertently pour poison on their dreams. We know that some people, some few, interpret such remarks as a challenge and take on an “I’ll show them what I can do,” attitude. They step up! But the majority do not. Once you’ve torpedoed their self-confidence in a certain area they let that dream boat sink. Tell a person that their no good at something and they believe it, they will become no good at it.
On the other hand, if you are generous with your approbation, you can help many a self-doubting youngster gain the motivation which can change their lives for the better. If they’re good at something tell them so. If they’re not, then either keep quiet about it or, if they ask for your opinion be gentle, perhaps referring them to something or someone who will be able to put their aspirations into perspective. But certainly be generous with your praise whenever you think it will help someone with a self-confidence issue.
I can recall to this day the words of praise that got me started in the two communicative areas of my life I now truly love: Creative Writing and Public Speaking. In the former, a retired school teacher said, “You’ve got the gift of words, Tom. You can write.” And so I did. And over the past forty-five years I’ve done just that. Novels, short stories, poetry, plays, non-fiction, essays – millions of words and I’ve simply loved writing virtually from that day forth. Sure, I’m realistic enough to know that there are many gifted writers in this world and one has to be extremely talented to be ‘discovered’ by the publishers. Still that hasn’t stopped me from writing. I do so just about every day.
With Public Speaking it was much the same. An evening college teacher said, “Tom, the way you have of putting words together in your presentations – you paint pictures in our minds.” Words to that effect were told to me by an elderly lady teacher and they made all the difference in the world. I became a public speaker. But I became especially good at delivering stories orally. Today I look back over the past thirty years and find that I’ve delivered oral stories to perhaps 45,000 people. Tomorrow I speak to another group. Three days after that another. I was told I could put pictures in people’s minds in the late 1970s. I was then in my thirties. I’m still doing so and enjoying it immensely in 2013.
So words, if they’re regarded as being really significant to the hearer, do make a tremendous difference in our lives. But those words do not necessarily need come to us only in spoken form. They can come to us in hand writing or print. A genuinely heartfelt letter from a friend or even a few words written on a card can make all the difference if the message thereon stirs something in our hearts.
Below, I relate a story which I gleaned from a book written by Roger Walsh, M.D., PhD – Essential Spirituality. I have re-written it in my own words but the essence of the story is there. Here it is:
A young teacher, we’ll call her Miss Parker, arrived at her new school to teach high school boys. The class Miss Parker was allocated were more than boisterous, they were downright rebellious. They fought among themselves. There were gangs, factions, bullying – a really tough school. Miss Parker’s main concern was to stop them warring among themselves. She wanted peace in the class. So she decided to do something very unusual.
“Boys,” she said. “I am going to hand each of you a sheet of paper. On that sheet will be the names of each boy in this room. I want you to write what you like most about the persons whose names are on that list, and then to hand it back to me. Okay, nice things only. What you most like or admire about the person to be written beside their name.
The sheets were handed out and you can imagine the chin stroking and head scratching as each boys thought what could he say – and it had to be something nice – alongside each individual name. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Eventually, when they had all finished writing, Miss Parker collected the papers and took them home with her.
At home that weekend she sat down and placed the first name on a separate sheet of paper. She then laboriously copied the comments of every other boy in the class, placing those comments one below the other under the boy’s name. It took a while. She then did the same with the next boy, and the next, until every lad in that class had the comments of their classmates on a list below their name.
The next school day she took the papers to school. She placed each, face downwards on every desk.
“All right, boys.” I’ve placed an upturned paper on each of your desks. This is what your classmates think about you. You may now turn them over and see what is written there.”
Soon everyone in the class was smiling. She heard whispers, “Really.” “I never knew people liked me so much.” And “I never knew that meant so much to anyone.”
Those assignments were never mentioned again, though the atmosphere in the class changed for the better from that day on.
A few years later one of the boys, Mark, went off to Vietnam and was killed in that war. Mark’s parents, after the funeral, invited Miss Parker and some of their son’s former school friend’s home to their house. After some time, when the boys and Miss Parker had became re-acquainted, Mark’s mother announce loudly to them all.
“I’d like to show you all something.” What she showed them was the piece of paper written out all those years ago with the nice things Mark’s class mates had written about him.
“He carried that piece of paper with him all of his life. You can see how much he treasured your words. He loved you people, you know.”
The former class mates heard these words and one piped up. “I still have my list. It’s in my top desk draw at home.” A second said, “Me, too, I kept mine. It’s in my diary.” “ I put mine in our wedding album.“said a third. “I bet we all kept them.” said a fourth!
Miss Parker burst into tears. A simple idea, thought up to bring peace to a class of former students had repercussions of goodwill which lasted and lasted. Such is the wonderful work of kind words.
So, dear readers, the message I wish you to take away is fairly obvious: be careful with your words. Be kind rather than cruel. You can do this be being generous with your praise and very tardy with any words of condemnation. Let your heart rule your head when it comes to evaluating the abilities, skills, and talents of others. What you say, or fail to say, can make such a big difference in their lives.