The Power of Language

When interacting with persons who are looking to make a change, we need to be aware of the powerful tool we hold. Effective communication through the skillful use of language is a powerful invisible tool that alters the neurology of those with whom we interact.

Our minds are more than just our brains. As conceptualized by Dr. Danial  Siegel, our minds are composed of the energy and information flow within and between us. Our minds literally extend beyond the physical confines of our skulls, shaping and shaped by our interactions with others.

When we engage someone who is struggling, we need to be mindful that beyond just telling us about themselves, they are inviting us into their minds. Since their minds are likely in a fragile state, accepting their invitation to engage deeper comes with a high level of responsibility. This is a responsibility we can’t take lightly.

In order to respect the other person we need to be aware of the subtle invitations they offer and accept them with care. This means we may even have to politely decline the invitation if the context is not suitable for a productive engagement.

When we accept an invitation to enter the mind of another, they are trusting us to productively engage with some of the most fragile parts of themselves. Before entering into this type of conversation we need to be aware of our own limitations, making them explicit so the other person does not have any misconceptions regarding the nature of the interaction.

Also, even when we notice invitations to elicit further, it is still a wise practice to ask permission. By asking permission, we respect their invitation. Just as when we are invited to someone’s home, we don’t simply walk in. Knocking before entry by asking for permission shows the other person we respect their inner mental space.

When we enter, we must also be courteous guests, remembering the skills of collaborative conversations, as described in the post on The Art of Collaboration. Each word is a hue, each line is a brushstroke, each brushstroke is thoughtfully considered, yet intuitive in the hands of a skilled artist.

Although the artist creates the work, it is the work that creates the artist. Communication shapes and alters our perception, as well as the perceptions of those we interact with. Productive interactions make sense of chaotic thoughts, emotions, and actions, providing clarity amidst the fog of lived-experience. Language is powerful and therefore comes with a great deal of responsibility when helping people change.

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9 Comments

  1. I appreciate the sensitivity to boundaries and ethics expressed in this post – especially your awareness of the importance of asking permission – and I also am an enthusiast of Dan Siegel, interpersonal neurobiology, and the idea of co-creation. I think it’s important to be clear, however, that no matter how attuned or intuitive we may be, we never actually “enter into” the mind of another. A good part of the fragility to which you refer, as I have observed and experienced it, arises from the false idea that such access is possible – an idea which may be threatening OR attractive to the fragile person, depending on many factors, but is dangerous either way; it is our job as workers to help others individuate, to understand that they are safe within themselves and able to experience choice about what they reveal. Yes, much can be perceived through eye contact, body language, tone, energy, and prior conversations, etc., but there is still an important element of autonomy that exists within each individual AS an individual, and the more vulnerable the person, the more support s/he may need in recognizing and claiming that. The desire to be known is powerful, and there are those among us who may wish at times to be known by another completely; there are even those among us who seem to have the good fortune of easy communion with at least one beloved Other (we are encouraged through various media to believe in such complete understanding, in addition; that’s another story!). But it is more realistic, responsible, and valuable to grapple with the challenges of being an “I” interacting with all the other “I’s” in this world, and to model that challenge in healthy ways for others. Rather than “inviting us into their minds,” others who share vulnerable space are inviting us into conversation with them: We need to know that’s what’s happening, even if they don’t, to begin with. Perhaps the point I’m making is semantic – for example, you may have *meant* that co-created interpersonal mindspace described by Dr. Dan, rather than “mind” as that word is commonly understood – but (as you say!) language is powerful, so I feel it’s important to be clear, or as clear as possible.

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    1. Thank you for this well though out comment! You are right at the end that I meant Dr. Dan’s definition of the co-created mindspace. Perhaps this definition should be emphasized more so it is not confused with the common understanding within my metaphor.

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      1. I’m glad I didn’t put you off with my lengthy comment! If it were my own piece of writing, I’m quite certain I would want to revise and clarify, partly because I feel strongly that therapeutic relationships have long been depicted with a power differential that favors the worker, leaving a lot of “undoing” to do, in terms of misconceptions. The promotion of a more equitable therapeutic relationship is why I so appreciate your emphasis on listening, holding space, and positive regard, a la Carl Rogers, in other posts.

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      2. Thank you for all of your feedback! I am actually using a great deal of the content here, with revisions from feedback, to publish a short kindle ebook on facilitating change. Would I be able to gift you a free copy when it is published? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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      3. How could I say no to that? I assume you’ve read Miller & Rollnick, heroes of motivational interviewing; that’s a significant portion of what I think you’re talking about. I love their work. So powerful.

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  2. (Upon reflection, I don’t have a Kindle, so I don’t know how that would work. But I do appreciate the offer and would certainly be glad to read it.)

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      1. Thank you for explaining that. I find it taxing to read at length on screens, though – especially small ones, but in general, so I try to avoid it. You should have my email from my having commented, I think, maybe? Could you send a different format as an attachment that I might print? Hope it’s sunny today where you are.

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