The Enormous Power of Our Words

Quick. List 5-10 things you remember from childhood.

Now, go back and scan your list. How many of those memories are negative in nature?

Don’t be alarmed if most of the things you remembered were negative. It turns out this is normal, even if our childhood was heavily filled with pleasant experiences.

Consider the following 2 explanations.

Psychological and Physiological

According to Clifford Nass, Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University and director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab, the fact that we tend to remember the negative over the positive “is a general tendency for everyone.” Yes, he explains “Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”

In the book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships which he co-authored with Corina Yen, Nass says, “The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres.” Furthermore, the authors assert, negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them.

Another interesting point offered by Professor Nass is that we generally tend to see people who say negative things as smarter than those who offer positive input. Therefore, we are more likely to give greater weight to critical comments.

A Metaphor

In their book, How Full is Your Bucket?, authors Donald O. Clifton and Tom Rath use the filling or emptying of a bucket as a metaphor for positive and negative interactions with others.

The authors imagine that each of us carries a bucket as part of our daily attire – a bucket that needs to be filled with positive experiences or words. The premise is that when we are negative towards others, we are using a dipper to remove from another’s bucket. Conversely, when we treat others in a positive manner, we fill not only their bucket but ours as well. 

The authors also make mention of “the magic ratio” of positive-to-negative experiences in connection to the bucket filling. “The magic ratio” is 5:1. (In other research, the ratio was listed as anywhere from 3:1 to 6:1.)   This ratio means it takes five positive comments to “undo” one negative comment.  Or five fillings of a bucket to outweigh one dipping!

Applications

What does all this mean for us – who are now helping shape the memories of our children and grandchildren?

Criticism

Realizing the magnitude of weight heaped on by our negative words and experiences, we must take care. Instead of slinging a constant barrage of criticism, we would do well to learn to offer criticism constructively – and sparingly. Most people, adults included, can take in only one critical comment at a time.

Encouragement and Affirmation

Five positives to one negative. That’s the ratio. Perhaps it’s time to focus on the positive by offering encouragement and affirmation.

ENCOURAGEMENT – words or actions that offer support, confidence, and hope.

Encouragement looks forward, painting a bright future of something that “could be.” Think of it as “cheerleading.”

AFFIRMATION – words or actions that confirm something that has already happened.

Affirmation looks backward, corroborating actions and events that have been observed.

“Therefore encourage one another and build up one another….” 

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NASB)

How full is your grandchild’s bucket? Perhaps it is time to grab that dipper and begin filling some nearly empty buckets.


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6 comments on “The Enormous Power of Our Words

  1. My earliest memory is my best friend being terrified of our dog.

    Yes, we do all need to be more mindful of our words. My husband made a comment last night and it involved the word “silly”. That one word has stuck out to me even through this morning. Regardless of how we *intend* our words to come out, we still have to be responsible for their effect on others.

    • Lisa, thank you for sharing your earliest memory. Isn’t it funny what sticks in our heads. Mine is of my younger brother carrying a glass bowl filled with potato chips, tripping, falling, and being rushed to the hospital so they could clean all the glass from his knee. Thank you, as well, for sharing such a profound thought — “Regardless of how we *intend* our words to come out, we still have to be responsible for their effect on others.” Such an important truth for each of us. Thank you for stopping by today. I love hearing your thoughts!

  2. What a great reminder our words matter. I found it interesting that we can only take in one critical comment. I am going to watch that and make sure I am at least puting 4 positive ones in the bucket too. Thank you for sharing your wise words with Grace & Truth Link-Up. Maree

    • That fascinated me too, Maree. I was familiar with the negatives outweighing the positives and with the ratio. But our ability to take in only one critical comment at a time was new to me. It’s certainly causing me to watch my words more closely. Thank you for stopping by today!

  3. Is this helpful for grandparents of young teens?
    Thank you!

    • Yes, Melanie, both the information in the blog post and the handbook, Give a Blessing, would be helpful to grandparents of young teens. Thank you for stopping by today and thinking of these precious young souls.

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