Words matter. If the goal is to connect and build bridges, you’ll choose them carefully.

They set tone, dictate parameters and conjure experiences that shape interpretation.

The right words can comfort, support, strengthen and inspire. They can tap into memories and stir new dreams.

Yet, for all their power, they are imperfect and incomplete. Packaging and presentation can have everything to do with how words are received. To further confound, meanings can change right before our ears.

And, as we learn early, they can do big-time damage. That playground ditty many of us learned — “sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” — that’s wrong. We learn the handful of epithets sure to cut any conversation short.

Remembering Mom’s Advice

My mother was always big on the way we used words. In her view, words like stupid, idiot and ignorant had no place in the conversations of a family. They did nothing to build bridges. Slang (not to mention expletives) signaled what mom thought to be a limited command of the language — if not laziness. Experientially she underscored the admonition “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”

Mom believed a positive spirit was the best way to connect with others. And the words we choose should be indicative of that spirit.

I suppose it is her influence that echoes when I’m tempted to call someone a derogatory name. (Not suggesting I don’t give in — just saying I still hear her voice when I do.)

And maybe this is why I feel such discomfort with how quickly we seem to fling nasty names and ugly characterizations at those with whom we have differences.

Whatever the source — and whether right or wrong — I’m weary of what seems to me to be little more than playground name-calling, accompanied by a conviction that he who talks loudest, Wins — from playground to boardroom to media feed.

If Conversation Is The Goal

Conversation — honest give-and-take — is one of the joys of friendship, and a basic element of community. It adds dimension and fabric to relationship. It broadens and deepens experiences.

At a pragmatic level, it is essential to partnership, collaboration and leadership.

Anyone that knows me knows I enjoy a good debate. But increasingly I find myself shying away from interactions with those who see nothing good around them; who are quick to point out inadequacies; who are convinced they (and those who agree with them) possess the only right view. In my experience at least, there is little real dialogue with these friends or colleagues; their mission is singular — to fix what is wrong.

Where this spirit persists there is little exploration or intentional listening. And decidedly limited progress.

The possession of a point-of-view, a big voice (or potent amplifier), and a pulpit is no guarantee that a message has what it takes to resonate, instigate dialogue and influence direction.

So, to the degree an old dog can learn, I’m trying to listen for common ground, choose words carefully, and abide by mom’s advice — if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.