Your words contain extraordinary power. With them, you can hurt other people and leave deep wounds behind. But you can also use words as good deeds to others, and they leave a strong mark, too. You can lift people up, charge them with energy, and inspire self-esteem. You need no big words – all you need is sincerity, honesty, and goodwill.
I have been thinking about the relationship between rhetoric and virtue. People often see rhetoric as ethically suspicious manipulation or hollow gimmickry with words. How can virtue have anything to do with such action?
In my opinion, this understanding of rhetoric is constricted. Granted, a skilful orator can lead her audience down the wrong path, but the same skills can be used to advance good things in life. It is unnecessary to regard rhetoric only as a martial art of sorts, in which one attempts to win people’s hearts and minds. Why can’t we also understand rhetoric as an art of narrowing distances between people? Easing tensions? Bringing down walls?
Use small words to charge people with new energy
Perhaps we could go even further and identify a new genre of rhetoric: speech that aims to do good to its listeners.
The following comparison will illustrate the issue: Traditionally, it has been part and parcel of public speaking skills to put listeners in a positive mood so they are more prone to accept what the speaker says. But there is also the kind of speech that has people’s well-being as the goal, without a hidden agenda of possible benefits to the speaker.
Speaking can be conceived as acts – speech acts. Speech acts may well contribute to what is good for the listener. Through them, something brand new may come about; the listener can experience an inner change.
If this kind of rhetoric exists, why can’t it be our primary genre of rhetoric? What good can we do to other people with words? There is any number of possibilities!
With our words, we can encourage and support each other, comfort and bring hope, get the other person to have faith in her possibilities, and especially make her feel valuable. Our words can charge the other person with new energy, through which she can perceive greater possibilities that have remained hidden up to then.
For this, you do not need big words, nor education in public speaking. All you need is sincerity, honesty, and goodwill – and perhaps a small pinch of courage to speak candidly.
The most important skill of the manager
What could these good words be?
For example, the manager can say to a subordinate: “Thank you. You have done a really good job on this matter. I appreciate your contribution and I’m thankful for you.”
The positive impact of these words can be immense. Good managers naturally give praise when there is reason to do so. Nevertheless, I dare to claim that, in the workplace, we do not hear this kind of positive feedback nearly as often as opportunities for giving it emerge.
Words that lift people up can and should also be uttered in the most difficult of moments. A good manager does not leave a subordinate alone in the midst of troubles but rather encourages her.
It is easy to get frustrated if an employee screws up. At that moment, your heart and mind are definitely not full of thankfulness, but the difficult situation undoubtedly also affects the employee who succumbed to the mistake: it erodes her self-esteem and trust in her own competence.
The manager can do a good deed with her words; she can remind her subordinate of her strengths and signal that she still trusts her. It is good to extend this kind of mental support, with which the other person can climb up from the crater of self-pity.
Good words from pure motives
I think it would marvellous if we did these kinds of good speech acts more often. And it would be particularly awesome if we were virtuously motivated to do so.
By this, I mean that one can naturally use acclaim and encouragement to get employees to work more efficiently. However, could we recognise the high value of what this assessment does to the employee’s self-perception? By receiving positive feedback, she can see so much good in herself and her own actions; she can value herself as a human being and a worker.
In different settings—in both the workplace and in our free time—we could treat each other more as valuable individuals in our own right than as instruments for reaching a goal. It is wonderful when a manager wants to praise her subordinate because she wants to lift her up as a person. It is wonderful when the praise does not involve a hidden agenda to make the employee even more productive as a worker.
“I like you”
It is good to sow words that bring a positive change into the workplace. Words can be simple; they can be variable, from small, bracing remarks to deeper displays of gratitude.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone said to you, “Thank you for being my workmate. I really enjoy working with you,” “You are a great person,” or even, “I like you.” If you hear something like this from time to time, you may congratulate yourself. These words should be uttered far more often.
Words have incredible power. A ruthless insult can leave a deep wound, which heals slowly. But good speech also leaves a potent mark, which has a long-lasting effect.
Perhaps we avoid strong positive words partly because we sense their power and do not want to bring about inflation for their meaning. This is understandable. One had better think before saying anything. But there are situations that are perfect for strong positive recognition – and everyday encouragements and displays of kindness are certainly always in order.
Joy from other people’s bloom
We best understand the unselfishness of good speech when we think about people who are close and dear to us – people to whom we wish all the good things in life from the bottom of our hearts. These people can be our dear friends, parents, and spouses.
We can sense the unselfishness particularly when we think about our relationships with our children. We might encourage our child because we want her to accomplish a job at school or in her hobbies. There’s nothing wrong with this. However, deep down, we hope that our positive words help her see herself as a valuable human being who trusts herself and her possibilities and that she is capable of sharing all the good she has gained with other people.
We want to support our children’s good lives and happiness with our words. We do not do it to gain mensurable benefits for ourselves. We do it just because we care for and love them. It brings us joy and happiness when we see our children blossom.
We can strive for the same kind of attitude towards other people, too. We choose words that best fit their situation and that lift them out of difficulties, build up their self-confidence, and increase their joy of life.
When speaking good is difficult
I believe we could do good speech acts much more often. Typically, we dish out uplifting words too sparingly, even for those with whom we can speak without inhibition and into whose lives we wish lots of good things.
We face the biggest challenges with acquaintances with whom we are used to speaking negatively and whom we do not like very much. How to face them?
First, we should not take up too big a challenge; rather, let us find one positive message that we can convey. With this message, we can surprise the one who is not used to hearing constructive feedback from us.
If we have people in our lives that we do not like, we can set the bar low enough. First, we should decide to refrain from speaking ill of them. At the same time, we can actively seek characteristics in them that could change our attitude. Little by little, the situation may change, our relationship will get better, and we can move on to thinking that one positive message that could cheer the other person up.
Replace cynicism with joy
I am certain that this kind of good speech will change the people who end up receiving it. But it also changes us. When we start saying positive and encouraging words to other people, this will become a habit for us. Along with this, we begin to see those traits in other people more easily, in which we can rejoice.
This is not uncritical positive thinking: We must naturally face real problems and troubles in a realistic way. But we get rid of filters of negativity, which have piled up in our field of vision. Our cynicism decreases. We are able to rejoice even in the small details of life in a new way.
It is often said that love ought to be displayed principally with deeds. But also, words are important – and as we have seen, words can be deeds, too.
Next time you ponder how you could act for the benefit of other people, you know where to begin. Say well-chosen good words. Leave the mark of these words to the other person and let them do their good work.
This blog post was originally published on the Finnish site Hyvejohtajuus.fi (Virtuous Leadership).