Killer phrases. You know what I’m talking about. Those seemingly innocuous words that when strung together deliver a crushing blow to the person to whom they were delivered. The intent doesn’t even need to be malicious; an offhand comment can sting just as much as a carefully crafted insult.
The power of these phrases is not held by the person who speaks them, but rather by the person who receives them. It is the interpretation of the words that stick to us like sand from the beach that we just can’t wipe off. If allowed, it can haunt us for years to come.
Let me tell you a story about a little girl. Let’s call her Ellen. She was in the fifth grade and she had been in love with Jeffrey since the second grade. Three years is very long time to nurse a crush of this magnitude so she decided the time had come to let Jeffrey know how she felt. Ellen spent some time gathering her courage until the moment came when she felt ready to declare her love. Full of nervous anticipation, she bravely approached Jeffrey and told him that she loved him. Unfortunately for Ellen, Jeffrey did not reciprocate those feelings of love. His eyes rolled back and he made some sort of sound which Ellen could only interpret as a “go away” sound.
As you can imagine, Ellen was crushed. The tears came as she began her walk home. Along the way, Ellen encountered little round Anita who wanted to help her friend feel better. Ellen told Anita how Jeffrey rejected her when she told him of her love for him. It was Anita, friend to Ellen, who uttered the killer phrase which would stay with her for decades.
“It’s clear Jeffrey doesn’t like fat girls.”
Anita intended those to be words of comfort to help her friend get past a little bump in the road, but instead they built bumps along every road she chose to travel. A pattern developed in which each time Ellen experienced rejection or disappointment in her life, she would have a dream of Jeffrey rejecting her. And of course, Ellen stuck to a healthy diet and exercise regimen to ensure she would never again be rejected as a fat girl.
Fast forward approximately fifty years and Ellen has a dream about Jeffrey, but this one is finally different. This time, Jeffrey loves Ellen too. She figures this must be a sign that she is now ready for him. So, when she wakes the next morning she calls her assistant and tells her to please find Jeffrey.
A day or two later, Ellen is driving when her assistant calls to say that she found him. Ellen pulls to the side of the road and learns that Jeffrey is an attorney, lives in Brooklyn, and her assistant thinks he is single! As she did fifty years earlier, Ellen worked up her courage to talk with him. She placed a call to him and when he heard who he was speaking with, he said “Oh my god, Ellen, I have always loved you.”
Ellen was excited to meet with Jeffrey, but scheduled the date two weeks away. You can probably guess why. She needed time to lose weight despite the fact that she already watched what she ate and exercised on a regular basis. So, she watched her diet more carefully, exercised a bit harder, and worked with her stylist to perfect her hair and makeup. All this hard work so she would not have to face rejection by Jeffrey a second time.
The day came and they met at a restaurant in NYC for lunch on a Sunday. When Jeffrey saw Ellen, he said “Oh my god Ellen, you look just the same!”
At that moment, Ellen realized she had a choice to make.
She could decide that Jeffrey meant she was gorgeous back in school and she is still gorgeous now OR she was still like that fat little girl and doomed to remain that way. She chose the first.
Once Ellen decided how she would interpret Jeffrey’s words, she was able to focus on the man whom she had been thinking about for so many years. He looked like a disheveled train wreck which he acknowledged when he said, “You probably didn’t expect me to look like this.” Letting go her her self-doubts, Ellen ordered every carb she had been denying herself and enjoyed her meal as well as her newfound outlook.
The moral of this story is that each of us can choose the stories we make up in our minds. We interpret what people mean with their words, looks, and actions. Depending upon how we receive them, words can be positive and uplifting or they can be negative and harmful. Ellen could have saved herself time and aggravation (and enjoyed a lot more carbs) if she had thought to ask “what else can that mean?”
Words affect behavior. As leaders, we need to be mindful of how we receive words as well as how we deliver them. This skill is developed in many of the effective communication courses offered by Cooperperson Performance Consulting, along with our upcoming complementary webinar, Getting Along With Anyone.
Join us for this FREE webinar on Friday, November 5, 2021 at 11am EST. Register here!