Most of us have heard the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword”. These words were never spoken more effectively than by 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls. In her first public speech since the attack, speaking to world leaders, she demanded that all countries provide free but compulsory schooling for every child.
"Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons," she said. "One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first."
In an impassioned address from the podium at the United Nations to more than 1,000 youth leaders from more than 100 countries, Malala called for "a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism."
Malala’s words made me think. There’s a lot of talk, but so many of the words spoken do nothing to change a person, a life, a country or a world. But here is a 16-year-old, using words more powerfully than many older and learned men and women to influence the world for good, not evil.
At the end of World War II the Allies sent a message to the Japanese demanding surrender. The Japanese responded with the word “mokusatsu”, which translates as either “to ignore” or “to withhold comment”. The Japanese meant that they wished to withhold comment, to discuss and then decide. The Allies, however, interpreted mokusatsu as the Japanese choosing to ignore the demand for surrender. The Allies, therefore, ended the war by dropping the bomb, which transformed the world we live in forever.
In his book, Taking Advantage: The Power of Words, Richard F. Taflinger writes:
The effect that words can have is incredible: to inform, persuade, hurt or ease pain, end war or start one, kill thousands or even millions of people. They can get your point across, or destroy any hope of your ideas ever being understood.
These examples make me ask myself: Do the 40,000 words I might speak during an average day really talk? Do they create a positive influence? Or, do my words fall like seeds on parched land, blown away by a strong wind?
This brings me to a few questions we could all consider:
- How have the words of another—positive or negative—impacted your life?
- Did those words build you up or tear you down?
- Were their words offered at the right time or the wrong time?
- Did their words speak judgement or seek understanding?
- Did their words offer kindness or cause you anger?
- Were their words used to forgive or to condemn?
Now, let’s ask ourselves the same questions about words you and I have spoken to others. How would others respond to us about the words we have spoken?
I have often been accused of being too sharp or too hard. I always characterized my approach as being direct and to the point. However, many times the feedback I have received has said I must be more sensitive to others in not only what I say, but also how I say it and when I say it. At times, I’ve been told my words, while truthful, were delivered harshly. Consequently, their meaning and purpose were lost upon the receiver. I wonder how my effectiveness as a leader, a father, a husband and a friend could have more impact on the lives of those who I connect with on a regular basis if I were to better frame my words.
Barbara White, a speaker, author and coach, writes about that positivity in her blog, Living Beyond Better:
Words have tremendous power. Words give out energy and a message that creates a reaction in others. Everything you say produces an effect in the world. Whatever you say to someone else will produce some kind of an effect in that person. We are constantly creating something, either positive or negative, with our words.
Successful people take control of their words, rather than letting their words control them. They are more conscious of their thoughts and words and the power they unleash. Successful people understand they need to speak positively rather than negatively in order to see success. Successful people are characterized by the words that they speak. They know the importance of speaking words that will build self-esteem and confidence, build relationships and build possibilities. They speak words of affirmation, encouragement, love, acceptance and appreciation.
We all must acknowledge the power our words have. In her Yahoo! contributing article, The Power of Words, Kim Piper Hiatt writes:
We all hold the power of words within ourselves. Whatever powers we give them, and however they may influence us, they are things of our own creation. With this knowledge, we are charged with a great responsibility. Words reflect and give wings to everything that is inside of us, and for good or for bad, they can express what we truly are as nothing else can.
Let’s be conscious of the impact our words have on others. Let’s use them to build each other up, not tear each other apart. Let’s find the right words to instruct, to correct and to discipline while not destroying the motivation and will to succeed. Let’s use our words to heal the broken hearted, to turn away wrath and squelch anger. Let’s make our speech judicious to those who hear us.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Proverbs 25:11