More Than Words

March 30, 2014

If anything is true in our world, it’s this: The way you say something, matters. A lot.

Sometimes, the words we use start fights, mislead people, confuse others, and make us sound ill-informed or ignorant. Sometimes, though, when we are really intentional and actually think, our words can move mountains.

I have always known that in working with clients with dementia, words have to be carefully crafted in order for them to effectively process what I’m saying (simplicity is always better), and can be helpful in redirecting negative behaviors and validating feelings when the clients’ words are incoherent. In working with my patients in the psych unit, I know that I can never respond casually to someone’s comments (i.e. when someone is being discharged, I never say “Oh, great!” – I always ask how they’re feeling about it) because they might not be feeling what I think they are. In talking with my colleagues, it’s easy to communicate automatically.  When someone says, “How are you?” I almost always say, “I can’t complain,” or “Alright. How are you doing?” This is all fine, but when someone says, “Sorry I didn’t respond to your e-mail – I was in Florida last week,” what I have learned is that you should never, ever, ever, say, “OH, FUN!!” like you would with a close friend. That person might have been visiting an ailing relative, going to a funeral, or going to court, and none of those are fun. And you might end up feeling bad about the superficial way in which you responded. With people I know well, it’s easy to just say whatever flies out of my mouth, but there is sensitivity necessary in those situations too, and it’s important sometimes to take a deep breath before saying something questionable.

Finally, I recently started working with a group of toddlers, facilitating a Montessori-style family music class. I have never been more aware of what words are coming out of my mouth than when I talk to those kids. Reinforcing gender stereotypes and placing labels on kids is EXTREMELY easy to do when…an 18-month old little boy picks up an entire basket of instruments and says “Aarrgh!” my initial reaction is to say, “Wow! You’re really strong!” – WRONG.  When a little boy hides his face and won’t give me a “high-five,” my initial reaction is to say, “Oh, he’s shy…(smile/giggle)” to his mom – WRONG. When a little girl is wearing something frilly in her hair, or a pretty skirt, my reaction is to say, “Oh, you look so pretty today!” – WRONG.

Something that has become very clear to me in working with toddlers is that they. are. sponges. Every word I say, every song I sing, every interaction I have, carries about 10 times more significance for them than what I intended. Since they have limited language and processing skills, they might not understand that what I’m saying is simply superficial. The end.So, what I have started doing is really thinking about what I really want the kid to hear. Do I want to model superficiality?

Not that I don’t enjoy it when my fiancé calls me beautiful, or when someone tells me I have a nice voice, but the comments that stick with me and encourage me are ones that have to do with my kindness, my resiliency, my sense of humor, and my mental strength. When a little old lady says to a person next to her, gesturing toward me “That one – she has a heart of gold,” while I’m putting someone’s shoe back on, mid-session, I smile inside, and I’m so grateful that something so simple let someone see a part of who I really am. When I was 3.25 miles through a tiring 4-mile run two days ago and a 60-something gentleman said, “Keep up the good work, young lady!” I felt like I could run five more miles.

This tells me that people aren’t just seeing what’s on the outside, or what I project. Since I realize that words matter to me, I’ve tried to change my “reactions” into thoughtful responses, so my words can mean something positive to the little kiddos in my music class. I’m not perfect, so I still have my moments (don’t we all?), but…what I’ve started doing when little Arnold Schwarzenegger picks up a big basket of instruments is either not say anything or say, “Oh, are you helping me clean up? That’s very helpful!” (or, as I’ve heard this past week: “Good helping!” I don’t make any comments about the shy little kid when he doesn’t give me a high five. Instead, I give him space, and then I try to help his mom get him out of his comfort zone through music, movement, and art. In the past few weeks, he has gone from being completely attached to his mother’s leg and not painting at all, to giving me high fives and making me the “heart” sign with his hands. He also painted yesterday for the first time in the class. When a little girl (there’s usually only one or two in the class) is wearing something lovely, I try not to focus on it at all, and instead thank her for helping me clean up and try to reinforce positive behavior, just like I do with the boys.

Our words can make a huge difference in the way people perceive us, in the way people (particularly kids) perceive themselves and the world around them, and in how well we are able to be understood. I think it’s about time we start giving words their due.

 

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