Throughout human history, great leaders have used the power of words to transform our emotions, to enlist us in their causes, and to shape the course of destiny. From Winston Churchill’s focus on the “finest hour” to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s depiction of a “dream” we are well aware that beliefs are formed by words – and they can be changed by words. But what about the ability we each have within us to use words to ignite change, to move ourselves to action, and to improve the quality of our lives?
We all know words provide us with a vehicle for expressing and sharing our experience with others. But do you realize that the words you habitually choose also affects how you communicate with yourself and therefore what you experience?
For the past 35 years I’ve had the privilege of working with more than 50 million people and I’ve observed firsthand the power of changing just one key word in communicating with someone and noted how it instantly changes the way people feel – and how they behave. And I can tell you that simply by changing your habitual vocabulary – the words you consistently use to describe emotions – you can instantaneously change how you think, how you feel, and how you live. This is the power of what I call Transformational Vocabulary – consciously using your words to improve the quality of your life today and for the rest of your life.
According to Compton’s Encyclopedia, the English language contains some 500,000 words. Yet the average person’s working vocabulary consists of 2,000 – 0.5% of the entire language. And the number of words we use most frequently – the words that make up our habitual vocabulary? For most people, it averages 200-300 words. Isn’t that unbelievable? (By contrast, John Milton’s writings used about 17,000 words and William Shakespeare used 24,000 words, 5,000 of which he only used one time.) Of those 500,000 words total, as much as 3,000 are used to describe emotions – two-thirds of which are used to describe negative emotions.
With such amazing resources with which to express our feelings and ideas, why should people accept such an impoverished vocabulary? Most people are not challenged by the size of the vocabulary they understand, but rather by the words they chose to use. Our brains are working at high speeds; they’re trying to help us to process what things mean and what we should do as fast as we can. As a result, we tend to use the same words over and over again. Many times we use short cuts, but these short cuts often shortchange us emotionally.
For more than two decades, I’ve been testing with live audiences all around the world, asking them to take on a very simple task: Make a list of the emotions you feel at least once a week. I have people take five to ten minutes, and write down not all the emotions they feel in a rare while (i.e. once a month or year), but simply the ones they consistently feel. Ironically, whether the audience is 2,000 people or 30,000 people, 90% of the people write down an average of a dozen words – and more than half of those represent negative feelings. That means literally, out of the 3,000 words we have for emotions, most people feel about five or six good feelings; and the bad feelings we find over and over again. We tend to get happy and excited, then angry, frustrated, sad, or even depressed, as an example. Have you ever taken the time to actually become aware of the habitual words you use to describe the emotions that you feel? Do you think it’s possible that when we feel negative sensations, that those sensations are transformed emotionally by the word labels we put upon them?
The problem is that most often we do not choose our words consciously to describe our emotions. Any emotions we experience that are distressing, we have habitual words that we unconsciously attach to them, and the challenge of course is the words we attach to our experience become our experience. Words have a biochemical effect on the body. The minute you use a word like “devastated” you’re going to produce a very different biochemical effect than if you say, “I’m a bit disappointed.”
It’s not hard to see the impact of this when other people speak to us. For example, if someone said to you, “I think you’re mistaken,” versus, “I think you’re wrong,” versus, “You’re lying,” would you have a different biochemical response to that simple word? The same exact process happens with the words that we use within ourselves, but unfortunately, we’re less conscious of its impact.
I first became consciously aware of the power of the words we use to label the experience of our emotions during an intense negotiation, more than a decade and a half ago. I shared information to the other side that I thought would help my two business partners and myself to cut through the positioning and show good faith. Unfortunately, rather than reciprocating with good faith, the other side ended up using that information to try to leverage us in an unjust way to close the deal that would not be to our advantage.