Refrain from Being a Drain

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Considering the Impact of Our Words on Others.

In our last article about Social Energy, we demonstrated how two descriptions of the same scene can elicit two different emotional responses from you, the reader. As it turns out, the same can be true with the mere utterance of a word. We invite you to try an experiment. Are you game?

Think of the word “Deer.” What emotions arise in you?

Perhaps it’s joy, as you remember the animated and adorable Bambi. Maybe it’s fear, because you once crashed into a deer and not only was the deer hurt, your car was severely damaged. Or it’s anger because you contracted Lyme Disease from a deer tick. It could be frustration because deer love devouring your pretty posies. Perhaps it’s excitement because you enjoy hunting during deer season. Or if you’re adventurous, it could be hunger, because you salivate just thinking about venison.

Now imagine you heard the word rather than read it. You might think “Dear”, which could evoke very different memories, associations and emotions than “Deer.”

Uttering just one word can impact those listening in a variety of ways. Each listener can have a unique reaction, across a wide emotional range, depending upon what associations, emotions, and corresponding neurochemical releases are happening as they listen.

Consider the contrast between “dear” evoking a memory of your dear grandma, who called you her dear, from which oxytocin and feelings of close comfort flow, versus “deer”, connecting you with the stress of that fender bender, which can inspire cortisol levels to rise instantly as you listen.

Here’s where we invite the wisdom of Dr. Debra Pearce McCall, our dear colleague, who combines decades of helping leaders transform, with a deep understanding of the workings of our nervous systems to help her clients peek into the inner workings of their brains:

“Most of the time we only think about our words as communicating what we want to say, and we don’t recognize how communicating is a whole body experience, with a lot happening beyond the words. Working and talking virtually can make this even harder to remember, though many non-verbals are still very much at play (for example, tone, facial expression, gestures, the context of the conversation.) Yet as our example illustrates, dear reader, we make sense of things by combining anything new with our existing experiences, biases and filters, mental schemas, and more. Our brain likes to use past knowledge to make predictions and take ‘short-cuts’ to understanding, as this takes less energy. Much of this happens outside of our awareness, and very quickly, so it requires intention and choice to notice it and work with it. If you could literally see the impact your words have on others, what would you do with that information?

Take a moment to absorb this, and to reflect on Debra’s last question through the lens of the following two quick exchanges you might hypothetically have with your colleague or your spouse:

“It’s your responsibility to make sure that the delivery deadline is met.”


“It’s your responsibility to do the school runs on Thursdays and Fridays.”

How would you predict these two sentences will impact your conversation partner? You might detect a sense of burden weighing on their shoulders. You may even witness their actual posture change. There could also be a different level of energy that they bring to the task, affecting the quality of its outcome. Finally, you might even find that the other party becomes hesitant to engage effectively with you going forward. All of this could be stress in action.

By contrast, imagine how the following words could elevate the listener’s self-esteem, inspiring enthusiasm and improving their connection with you:

“I’d like to hand over the responsibility to you for this client.”

A single word, “responsibility”, placed in different contexts, creates different neurochemical reactions in others. With this awareness, combined with Dr. Pearce McCall’s advice, one thing becomes clear: The same word can trigger a spectrum of responses depending on a listener’s differing experiences, biases, predictions and unique personal history.

Becoming more aware and intentional about the words we use and paying more attention to cues we receive from others about the impact our words can make or break our connections. It could also shift how the conversation unfolds and determine which memories and experiences become stored and drawn upon for future exchanges.

When conversations feel heavy and toxic, we bring the wrong kind of energy to social interactions. And much like with positive energy, the toxic stuff is contagious as well, perhaps even more so. If we could redesign our conversations to be less onerous and more stimulating, imagine the positive impact it could have on Social Energy, and on our collaborative efforts, both in the workplace and at home!

If you’re curious about a concept we just mentioned—emotional contagion, and the science behind it—you’re in luck! We’ll cover this in our next 3T article.

The dynamic duo, Ute, who lives in Germany and Deborah, who lives in New York, met up in Rome recently at conference for coaches from all over the world.

Ute Franzen-Waschke

Ute Franzen-Waschke is passionate about developing people for the international workplace. Throughout her career, she has worked with her clients on co-creating environments that allow individuals, teams, and businesses to thrive, be the focus on communication, relationship, or corporate cultures. Ute is doing research on how Coaching can support wellbeing and engagement in contemporary corporate work environments. She is the author of the book “How to create a successful remote work culture”, Co-author of the book “Changing Conversations for a Changing World Vol 1 & 2”.

Deborah Goldstein is the founder of the Driven Professionals, a community driven to support the health, well-being & success potential of NYC professionals. Deborah is also the founder of Goldie’s Table Matters, providing education and entertainment to both corporate and private clients nationwide.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.