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Words matter

Section Editor(s): Raso, Rosanne MS, RN, NEA-BC

doi: 10.1097/01.NUMA.0000547263.07462.95
Department: Editorial

Editor-in-Chief, Vice President and CNO, NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, New York, N.Y.

Whether spoken or written, are you choosing your words carefully?

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It seems like I'm surrounded with examples of why and when words matter lately. Severe cases of what my mother would call “foot-in-mouth” disease abound; there are, of course, numerous examples of political leaders suffering from it. In a nursing theory class this year, I learned that there's an important difference between “I know,” “I think,” “I feel,” and “I believe.” Then I read a recent article by Angela Prestia on impactful messaging and, you guessed it, it was about how words matter. Whether spoken or written, are you choosing your words carefully?

As leaders, we're on 100% of the time—we influence through our words, as well as our actions, and how we use language can even be a form of action. Whether formal or informal, verbal or nonverbal communication, it's all important and meaningful. Without words, there's no message, no vision, and no shared story.

Internet searches of “leadership language” and “words matter” yielded over 500 million hits, clearly significant topics. At a recent workshop, motivational speaker Kevin Ames asked the audience, which included me, why do we use ill-considered language? His example was using the words talent acquisition. Is your recruitment department called talent acquisition? To him, it means that the organization doesn't want you, the person, it only wants your talent. See, words do matter.

Words have power, too. Here's an example from my internet search: If I tell you a hamburger is 80% lean as opposed to 20% fat, it's the same thing. However, people get different messages. Most perceive the 80% lean hamburger as being much healthier than the 20% fat burger. How you frame your message impacts how others think about it.

Clarity, truthfulness, and optimism can help you with framing. Instead of saying “nothing is working around here,” you can switch to goal-based, positive language about your confidence in the team meeting goals and how to progress together. Address the why and avoid generalizations. Make it personal and tell a story that relates the message in a tangible way, focusing on the “so what” factor. Most importantly, be authentic—people detect insincerity and know when you don't mean it. You know when a group doesn't “get it”; reframe and try again.

Don't forget the written word, which is indelible and can be shared. How many times have you pressed send on an email and regretted it immediately? Yes, I have, too—it's an awful feeling. Read twice before distribution and don't send an email if you're emotional because those words most likely need editing. It doesn't matter that you “didn't mean it,” it's too late. We have a responsibility to be aware of the impact of our words, spoken or written.

Did you know that there's a Words Matter Week? I didn't either. Writers, librarians, editors, and teachers are big believers. Consider this quote from journalist Earl Wilson: “If you wouldn't write it and sign it, don't say it.”

Make your words count. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and we're using words to communicate, then we have a lot of work to do to be descriptive, meaningful, and leader-like. Words matter. They matter to all the important outcomes of our work, including engagement, quality, and safety—the focus of this month's Safety Solutions issue. Are we clear?

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