Harnessing the Great Power in Our Words

“The power of life and death is in the tongue” is not an overstatement or exaggeration.

Consider this:

  • According to the Washington Post, on Dec. 3, 2018, nine-year-old McKenzie Adams died of suicide after being taunted and bullied by classmates. NINE. Bullied to death at nine years old.
  • The next day, 25-year-old “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson had to proclaim on Instagram that he would not kill himself in spite of those who were encouraging him to do so.
  • In August 2017, Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her boyfriend because of text messages she sent him.

Clearly, words matter.

As government employees, we are public servants. This is a role we take with us even off the clock. We need to watch our words with the public, our families, our friends and even people we don’t like. It is our responsibility as public servants to set the tone in our communities, and it is through the power of our words that we can do that.

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” – Yehuda Berg

In this season, many among us may recognize Hanukkah, Christmas, or Winter Solstice, or create New Year’s resolutions. This is a perfect time to evaluate our language and communications.


Are there ways we can more gently say what needs to be said?

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – John Watson

Sometimes, we may think we are simply sharing facts and people shouldn’t get their feelings hurt by our comments. But as Watson’s quote suggests, we don’t know what people are going through. We don’t know how our comments might affect them.

Using kindness and respect can go a long way to prevent many issues.

Do you have an employee who isn’t as competent as others in a specific skill? It’s OK to tell her this, but in private and gently.

Saying that her work is lacking in front of coworkers could demoralize her.

“I appreciate all your effort, and I know you want to improve. Here’s how,” said in an informal meeting in your office is more likely to encourage her and actually help her do better.


Are there comments we want to say, but maybe don’t need to?

“That tie is the ugliest one I’ve ever seen,” may be the absolute truth. It’s probably not necessary to say to the wearer, though, unless he specifically asked your opinion.

Telling a constituent that she is the 15th person to ask that same dumb question today serves no purpose… other than to maybe make you feel a little better, and only temporarily at that.

Thinking about sending your boss an email explaining how a coworker messed up? Take a moment to reconsider… is it really necessary?

As many of our mothers said to us, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.


We’re all human, and we all say things we later regret. Don’t be afraid to apologize.

A sincere apology can mend a lot.

By saying, “I’m sorry. I know what I said was hurtful,” you acknowledge the other individual’s personhood and show him respect. While an apology may not take away all the pain of your words, it can take away some of the sting.

And frankly, by showing him respect, he’s more likely to respect you in return.

There is no guarantee that you won’t ever hurt someone’s feelings, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. There will be times you say something completely innocently and someone’s feelings will still get hurt. You may even praise someone and hurt their feelings.

“What a great improvement you’ve made,” you say sincerely, and she responds with, “So I was terrible before?”

You can still say you’re sorry even though your intentions were pure. Letting her know you didn’t mean it that way and you’re sorry you gave her that impression can be a salve to her wounded spirit.

Powerful Words

I’m sure most of us would never think to tell another human being to kill himself, either online or in person. These are pretty dramatic stories, but they are real stories. Real people.

So even though we might never suggest to someone, “go kill yourself,” we can still help lead our communities into gentler, more healing conversations by the words we choose.

Remember that “hurt people hurt people.” By doing our part to reduce the chance of hurting those around us, we also reduce the risk they will go on to hurt others. It’s a very positive ripple effect of kindness. An upward spiral of good.

All from the power of our words.

Lisa Salinas is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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