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Words can incite hatred
or inspire greatness

I have absolutely no doubt that words can change the world. I get irritated when people dismissively wave their hand and say, "that's just words." I'm a writer. I use words every day. I write books full of words. I know the power of words.

Words are more powerful than guns. Violence begins -- and ends -- in communication. At the level of youth violence, many acts of youth violence are initiated when one person feels they've been disrespected or "dissed." Verbal violence usually precedes and then accompanies physical violence. For every person suffering physical violence, there are hundreds suffering the effects of verbal violence. For every person who just got a fist in the face, there are hundreds who just took a verbal punch in the gut.

There are major differences between verbal and physical violence. A physical attack is obvious and unmistakable. It hurts and often leaves a visible mark. Verbal violence is different. Except in certain public circumstances like a court of law, there's no group or body you can call for help. The pain of verbal violence goes deep to the self and festers there. Because nothing shows on the surface, you can't expect much sympathy or even actual assistance. Worst of all, verbal violence often goes unrecognized, except at a level you probably may not even understand yourself.

If words can hurt, they can also heal. Think of the four words, "I have a dream." The moment they enter your mind, you know who said them -- and why. They are a call to action and a call to find the best part of ourselves. They are a part of history. While the person who originally spoke them may have been silenced, the words live on with a capacity to change the world through all those who embrace them. Words are definitely more powerful than guns.

Think of other particularly powerful words: thank you; I'm sorry; I love you; hope; trust; courage; peace. It is through words that we create our lives and our world, that we choose what to pay attention to and make real. Speech communication professor Irving J. Lee saw communication as fundamental:

Communication plays a tremendous role in human affairs. It serves as a means of cooperation and as a weapon of conflict. With it, people can solve problems, erecting the towering structures of science and poetry -- and talk themselves into insanity and social confusion.

Says noted communication scholar Lee Thayer:

It isn't exactly that we humans are made of words. But we are made of what we can make with words -- ideas, images, hopes, theories, fears, plans, understandings, expectations, love, a past and a future, culture, ways of seeing, civilizations, minds -- everything human. We are at once the source and the product of how we comprehend the world, and of how we express ourselves in it.

And sums up human communication pioneer Colin Cherry:

Words can arouse every emotion: awe, hate, terror, nostalgia, grief... Words can demoralize a person into torpor, or they can spring a person into delight; they can raise him to heights of spiritual and aesthetic experience. Words have frightening power.

Through communication we develop our own humanity and build the bonds that make communities. When we cease to talk, we break the fragile web that is community and make it virtually impossible to learn from each other. Without communication, ignorance leads to misunderstanding, and misunderstanding all too often leads to violence.

Much has been written about the need for new patterns of communication in our society. There's deep dissatisfaction with the traditional ways of dealing with conflict, from argument to debate to lawsuits to violence. There's a growing feeling that there has to be a better way. Part of that better way involves using the words and skills of constructive conflict resolution. The goal isn't to eliminate vigorous dissent, but to make dissent possible -- by replacing violence and avoidance with rich relationships that can tolerate productive disagreement.

Whenever people communicate with each other, there is much at stake. The usual model for understanding interpersonal communication is the mechanical sender-receiver model. We describe individuals as sending and receiving "messages." This model ignores much of the complexity in human communication. Communication is the process of creating meaning, the process through which we construct and navigate our lives. We may need a completely different, courageous model of communication in order to get where we want to go. A number of researchers have shown how principles of jazz improvisation can provide promising models for relationships. While remaining attentive to and respectful of some basic rules of music, jazz players constantly challenge themselves to innovate without alienating the others. Well-worn riffs are called "comps," which is short for "competency traps," and a player who chooses them is seen as weak. Unlike the usual pattern in relationships, jazz musicians "fail" when they stay with what's safe and known. We must think beyond "sending messages."

The way we communicate every day in our family becomes a model for our children. In How To Talk So Kids Can Learn at Home and in School, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish comment:

It occurred to us that we had an additional responsibility to today's generation of children. Never before have so many young people been exposed to so many images of casual cruelty. Never before have they witnessed so many vivid demonstrations of problems being solved by beatings or bullets or bombs. Never before has there been such an urgent need to provide our children with a living model of how differences can be resolved with honest and respectful communication. That's the best protection we can give them against their own violent impulses. When the inevitable moments of frustration and rage occur, instead of reaching for a weapon, they can reach for the words they've heard from the important people in their lives.

Delinquent behavior is considered "acting out" by psychologists. To teach young people how to express in words what they feel is to help them "speak out" rather than "act out" conflicts at school and at home. To teach children how to communicate to find alternative solutions to a problem helps them to recognize that they have options in their lives.

Sharing books is one of the most powerful ways to bring the richness and complexity of words into your home to explore their power. The words in a book can spark the imagination, stir the soul, introduce new ideas, and offer delight. The words in a book will also spark other words in conversations with a parent or teacher. Talk freely with children about a book, about the words, the pictures, the values, the ideas in it. Empower young people to use their own words. Empower them to use words to create a meaningful life story for themselves, to connect with others, and to make a positive difference.

It is words which incite people to commit acts of violence just as it is words which can unite and heal. Words have tremendous power. So it's important to encourage thought and dialogue... while at the same time watching your words.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org