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The language of hope

Leaders’ words can sabotage their message. Coaches Dale Beaman and Cary Gray Kelly offer ways to use the language of abundance, not scarcity.

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

April 21, 2009

By Dale Beaman and Cary Gray Kelly

When you speak, are you giving or diminishing life? Proverbs 18:21 suggests how powerful words are and challenges us to be intentional about language: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” How much does your language mirror popular vocabulary and mood? Are your emotions influencing your language, or are you turning to God for words of hope and inspiration?

In our work as leadership coaches, we’ve seen how underlying emotions color language -- and how important it is to be aware of this. Studies of the brain show some predictable behaviors: If you’ve just bought a new car, for example, you suddenly notice people driving the same model. If you tell yourself not to think about purple elephants, purple elephants lurk in your thoughts. Knowing how this works can help you to use language that empowers and transforms. It also reminds us to diminish internal clamor, creating space for God’s peace.

It’s easy for the language you use to undercut your message, but shifting your focus from limits to possibilities can turn this around. For example, your language reflects a sense of scarcity if you say: “The economy is really affecting our giving; we are down 20 percent. Please pray about your giving so that we don’t have to eliminate important programs.”

The same request, expressed differently, conveys a sense of abundance: “We give thanks for the 80 percent we have received. We invite each of you to give in grace, gratitude and generosity in this community as we build the kingdom of God.”

The mind attends more to negative messages than to positive ones, harking back to our cave-dwelling days when being ever-alert to danger was the only way to survive. The Sept. 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the current economic situation have informed our public vocabulary with words and phrases that create the very emotions they describe: catastrophe, apocalypse, calamity, tragedy, recession, disaster.

Be sure that you are not unconsciously adopting the lexicon that fills our airwaves and conversations. Spend some time recognizing the source of your own anxieties. With self-awareness and recognition of your own emotions, you will begin to see possibility and develop intention that feeds your brain a new focus.

How do you change your language? Here are some strategies to use your speech to give life:

Focus on self-awareness. Rabbi and therapist Ed Friedman describes a tendency of leaders in time of fear and uncertainly to “focus on data and technique rather than on emotional process and the leader’s own self.” Seek a coach, a spiritual director or a trusted partner who gives you honest feedback and with whom you can identify and manage your own emotions.

Be clear about what you want. Too often we inform our language by expressing what we do not want. Focus on what you have gained and hope for, not what you lack and fear. Shift your thoughts and language to possibilities and a picture of a vibrant future to which God is calling you.

Surround yourself with positive influences. Choose people and environments that help you see possibilities instead of problems. When there is uncertainty, we are called to transform our communities and our lives; challenge yourself to find guideposts that lead you to the greatness of God’s design.

Practice gratitude. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis, shows that practicing gratitude can increase happiness and improve health. He writes that “a life oriented around gratefulness is the panacea for insatiable yearnings and life’s ills.” Practice gratitude by writing a gratitude letter, keeping a gratitude journal, or beginning and ending each day with a prayer of gratitude.

Celebrate your story. Go to the roots of your faith and the formation of your community. Share your own story of salvation and redemption. Lead your congregation or organization to tell the story that expresses its core values and propels it to a dynamic future.

Proverbs 18 reminds us that our words matter. Remember, we are born into hope, into abundance. We are Easter people. As disciples, we are called to share that abundance. We can do that by using the language of hope.

Dale Beaman of Beaman Coaching & Company and Cary Gray Kelly are certified leadership coaches and consultants.