The power of language. How our vocabulary can shape our emotions.

Recently, I read an article written by author and life and business strategist Tony Robbins on the power of language.  In his piece, Robbins explains his belief that we can spark change, get into action, and move ourselves in the direction we want to go in life through the use of words.  In essences, the words we choose to use to describe ourselves, others, and situations have a real impact on how we see the world.

Wait… seriously?

I’ll admit, at first this seemed a little esoteric to me.  But then I started thinking about how I use words in my profession, and Robbins’ message began to resonate.  Often, my job as a financial professional leads me to talk candidly with my clients about how they feel about their money.  My role as their financial advisor can shift, leading me to play an important role as their emotions advisor.

Depending on the current temperament of the market, a client may be worried, or they may be downright distressed.  Other times feelings of greed and impatience prevail.  When speaking to clients about the very emotional topic of their financial health, I choose my words carefully.  Of course, I want to convey to folks that I understand their feelings.  At the same time, I try to use words to impart a sense of balance to extreme emotional flare-ups.

For example, if a client comes to see me and is wringing her hands over the latest market dip, she may tell me she feels afraid and wants to overhaul her portfolio.  In instances like these, I try to use language to reassure my client that her feelings are natural, while also reminding her that investing is a long-term endeavor.  I may echo her feelings of distress back to her as “concern,” or “worry.”  From my experience, using more neutral words to describe heightened emotions can calm clients back to a more rational place.

After a good long talk, my clients leave my office feeling more balanced and thinking more realistically about their long-term investments.  As I discovered from reading Robbins’ article, I’ve been using the power of language to de-escalate feral feelings and to create positive results.  And I didn’t even know it.

Language shapes our behavior

Robbins begins his discussion on the power of words with a quote from Dr. Andrew Newberg.  Distilled down, Newberg’s quote delivers the message that “language shapes our behavior.”  How does it do that, you may be asking.  Robbins goes on to explain exactly how he’s seen this process work in people’s lives.

Think back to history.  Great political and social leaders harness the magic of words to inspire people, to get them on board with movements, and to create change.  This is true of folks like Martin Luther King, Jr. (“I have a dream”) and our current president (“Make America great again”).  Through words, leaders across the country and around the globe get people moving.

According to Robbins, the power of words doesn’t stop there – and why should it?  We all have the strength and ability to use words that motivate us to make important changes in our daily lives.  Whether we want to grow professionally or personally (or both), the language we use to promote growth matters just as much individually as it would were we speaking to a crowd.

Robbins relates that over the past four decades, he’s worked with more than 50 million people.  And what he’s discovered is that changing one – just one – word in the way we describe how we’re feeling can have a massive impact on our emotions, our actions, and our experiences.  That’s quite a sample size.  From what Robbins has seen in people, he developed the concept of “Transformational Vocabulary.”

Simply put, this idea stands for what happens when a person consciously chooses words to describe their feelings, others, and their environments to improve their individual quality of life today, and for the rest of their lives.

Just look at the numbers

To give more context to his claim, Robbins points out that the English language contains roughly 500,000 words.  That’s a big number.  I know I feel like I have a decent vocabulary, but I can’t imagine knowing, let alone using, anything close to that number of words.  Turns out, I’m not alone.  For most folks, we use around 2,000 words in our daily lives.  That’s only 0.5% of the total number of words in our language!  And people play favorites – we typically have between 200 – 300 words that make up our habitual vocabulary.  What Robbins found particularly interesting was the fact that, of the 500,000 words in our language, as many as 3,000 describe our emotions.  Of these 3,000 words, almost two-thirds are used to describe negative feelings.

Robbins asks, “With such amazing resources with which to express our feelings and ideas, why should people accept such an impoverished vocabulary?”  Sure, we may not all be shooting for Shakespeare in our day-to-day lives (the Bard used 24,000 different words in his catalog of writings), but don’t we want to use words that best fit what we’re trying to convey?  Sure we do.  But most interesting to Robbins was his observation that choosing the “right” word doesn’t just make us better communicators, it changes our emotions.

There’s a reason we crutch on a small sample of words – our brains are working quickly, and they’re trying to help us understand what we experience and how we should react as fast as they can.  According to Robbins, if we give in to the first word that comes to mind to describe our feelings, we may be selling ourselves short.

When he’s with a live audience, Robbins gives members a simple task:  list the emotions you feel at least once per week.  The audience has about five or ten minutes to jot down emotions they consistently feel.  After doing the exercises for some time, Robbins noticed a pattern.  No matter if there were 2,000 or 30,0000 attendees, most people came up with about a dozen words.  And of these, most were associated with negative feelings.

Robbins says, “We tend to get happy and excited, then angry, frustrated, sad, or even depressed, as an example.  Have you ever taken the time to actually become aware of the habitual words you use to describe the emotions that you feel? Do you think it’s possible that when we feel negative sensations, that those sensations are transformed emotionally by the word labels we put upon them?”

Robbins does.

Here’s an example

According to Robbins, “It’s not hard to see the impact of this when other people speak to us.”  He goes on to illustrate his point with a simple example.  Imagine that you’re speaking with someone like a friend, family member, or coworker.  This person is talking to you about a misunderstanding.  Imagine first them saying, “I think you’re mistaken.”  Next imagine them saying, “You’re wrong.”  And finally, imagine them saying, “You’re lying.”

Clearly, these three sentences, meant to convey the same message, feel different to us.  Our minds respond to these sentences biochemically, but the different phrasing leads to different biochemical effects.  While in the first instance we would probably remain open to talking, the last two sentences no doubt leave us on the defensive and with hurt feelings.

Robbins is a firm believer that the exact same process happens when we choose words to describe ourselves.  And because he is a life and business strategist, he is chiefly concerned with the impact our word choices have when we speak about ourselves.

When you boil his message down, Robbins says, “The problem is that most often we do not choose our words consciously to describe our emotions.”  And if we go with the first quick response from our brains, we may be doing a disservice to how we feel, act, and experience whatever situation we’re in.  Think of the example of feeling disappointed.  If we say, “I’m devastated” instead of, “I’m a bit disappointed,” our minds and bodies will experience a very different biochemical effect.

The takeaway is that the words we use to describe our experiences become our experiences.  Robbins has seen this phenomenon play out time and time again in his own life and in the lives of the people with whom he works.

How you can choose better words

These days, Robbins is a big believer in choosing words that create better experiences.  Say, for example, that you’re traveling and your flight gets delayed.  We could express our resulting feeling anywhere on the word spectrum from “furious” to “a little peeved.”  Exactly which word or phrase we choose makes all the difference.  Using a more neutral, or lighter way of describing our emotions can de-escalate moments where we feel extreme emotions.

In the end, we feel better than if we were operating at emotional extremes.  This leads to better choices, actions, and experiences.  And it gives us back control over our feelings when we are intentional about how we choose to describe them.  Intense emotions aren’t running the show anymore.  We are.

When we realize that emotions fall somewhere on a pendulum, and the words we use to describe how we’re feeling can affect where we are on that swing, we take our power back to control our own lives.  Whether you believe it or not, isn’t it worth a try the next time you’re having an intense emotional reaction?  After all, how much better would life be if we weren’t ruled by extreme negative feelings?

Robbins admits that his concept of “Transformational Vocabulary” may just seem like semantics, but he swears by the power of changing our words to change our experiences.  He’s seen in it his own life and work, and so have I.

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