Now that I’ve taken a moment to talk about communication, I think it is important to recognize a few lessons and exercises that I have seen throughout the years. The first lesson came to me at a very rough time. This was years ago in the month of December 1989 to be exact. I was a young man on the verge of losing my Father. At the time, my Father (The Old Man) was in a coronary care unit after a series of heart attacks. By the way, this was the strongest man that I ever knew. Of course, my Dad could beat up your Dad. He was smarter too. He could fix anything (So there!) but above all, The Old Man was my very first hero.
The Old Man lay in his bed, almost gray, and weak as ever. I never saw him this way before. I never saw him as anything other than strong and capable. However, life is life, which means life is both eventual and inevitable. Age takes place and although my memories of The Old Man are of him and his strength, at his end, The Old Man was weak and humbled.
My goal was to have him be proud of me. I always wanted his praise. Then again, what son does not want the praise of his Father? I wanted to be good. I wanted to be strong like him; however, there were times when The Old Man said things that made me weak. I don’t think he meant it. I don’t think he wanted to cut me down. I think his frustration was more about him and that The Old Man’s temper was more about what he, himself, could not control. Words have meaning. This is especially so when the words come from your hero or from the people who are supposed to love you the most. Words can change the direction of someone’s day. And so can praise and support. In fact, the difference between positive and negative reinforcement is phenomenal.
There was a book at The Old Man’s bedside in the hospital. The title of this book was All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum. Now, in fairness, I have never been much of a reader. To be clear, I am not much of a reader now. I was only 17 at the time and on the verge of so many changes—and there he was, my hero and my first introduction to the meaning of manhood and masculinity. The Old Man was reading the book until his condition grew worse. To me, I figured if this was good for him then maybe this was something good for me. This was the first book that I ever read from cover to cover.
(By the way: Dear Mr. Fulghum: Thank you. If it weren’t for you and this book, I’m not sure how I’d have gotten through this time.)
Out of loyalty and respect for the author, Fulghum put together different chapters of prose that were all touching, heartwarming and thought provoking. One chapter specifically talks about the Solomon Islanders and the way they chop down trees. The story about the Solomon Islanders is that they sneak up on the trees at the crack of dawn and yell at them. They do this until the tree falls. Now, I know that I have read other articles about this. I know there are skeptics but I have never been to the Solomon Islands nor have I ever met any of the Solomon Islanders who yell at the trees. It is said that the yelling breaks the spirit of the trees and this is why the trees fall.
Now, I have seen other studies done by big corporations where they experiment with two different plants, both of the same species. One plant is nurtured with kind words and the other—well, the other plant is treated with a Solomon Islander style. The experiment showed the plant that was nourished was healthy. As for the other plant that was treated Solomon Islander style; not so much. I have read skeptical reports on this as well. But still, there is an understandable piece which I see as fitting in the life we live.
I once heard a father ask his B+ student about getting an A. I watched a son-in-law spend an entire morning on his landscaping that was literally stunning—only to hear his father-in-law criticize his efforts over noting the great design. Or wait, I spent an hour at a book signing while being told that I would never be a “Real” writer and that I should just call it quits; only to find out that the person who was telling me this was someone who never dared, never tried, and more importantly, never published a book.
I have seen teams lose due to poor morale and I’ve watched supervisors bully in the office. I’ve watched people who went un-nurtured go off in the shaded distance and I’ve seen people quit themselves because they lacked the impactful motivation of an empowering leader. Most are unaware that leadership begins within; that leaders can follow and this not be a threat. Leadership is not yelling or abusing those who you employ.
Fulghum wrote about the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” However, and for the record; this is one of the countless reasons why Fulghum is one of my favorite writers because in his efforts to create understanding, Fulghum changed this to, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will break my heart.”
Words have meaning. But we already know this.
Actions have meaning too and both words and actions are translated into an interpretation.
But wait, this is work. Right?
This isn’t nursery school. We have to have thicker skin; otherwise, we are considered to be too sensitive. Which, by the way, there is nothing wrong with being sensitive. This means you have an understanding of personal feelings and space. It can be problematic; especially to empaths who literally feel someone else’s pain but this means one thing above all, which is that you are unbelievably human and absolutely normal.
Words can hurt the spirit of a person. Then again, perhaps this is the sole intention of bullying. Perhaps, this is the way to survive by sacrificing a so-called weaker person to ensure the survival of self. Of course, we all know about the tactics of the gossip mills and the rumor factories. We all know about cancel culture and character assassinations. This, too, is an attack to destroy the spirit of a person so that like the tree or the un-nurtured plant—the spirit dies. The heart dies. The willingness to engage and improve or prosper dies. But that’s not all. Purpose dies and vision becomes darkened and blurred. Efforts become pointless and therefore, life becomes pointless too. The anxious become more anxious. The depressed become more depressed and there are those who see this in an almost Darwinism sense and say, “Only the strong survive!”
By the way, I was bullied. I was put down. At best, I was told that I would dig ditches or maybe be a truck driver. I was told this as an insult by people in authoritative positions like teachers and guidance counselors. I was told that I would be lucky to pump gas. I was called stupid. I was told that I was a loser, an idiot, a bum, and at best, estimates had me dead before the age of 20.
I am not shy about identifying myself as a person in recovery. I have openly told my story in educational, therapeutic and professional settings. I am clean and sober. I am a boy with learning disabilities who became a man that had to learn different ways to navigate through the working cultures of life. I live with intense anxieties. I have a firm in-depth understanding of suicidal ideation and for the record; I am a survivor of both myself and a lifestyle that almost killed me more than once.
Yet, each day I find myself awakened by nature over an alarm clock. I am awake at an early hour, writing, learning and studying my craft, which is a craft that I hope will help me learn to pull off my trick. Each day I learn new things. I find myself no different from the rest of the world. There are times when I take two steps forward and three steps back. However, the Solomon Islanders are truly on to something. Words do have meaning. Words can absolutely kill the spirit. But since this is true then it is also true that words can save a life.
We can be our own worst enemy but wouldn’t it be better if we could be our own best friend. Rather than be overly critical of self, why not be overly supportive? We have to be mindful of self-talk. We have to be mindful of all talk because yes, words have meaning and although some words we hear can hurt us; the words we say can hurt us just as deeply.
I worked for a man who was downright mean and nasty. I did not like him and he did not like me. Besides, there was nothing to like about him. He was big and burly, aggressive and angry. He would look to hurt people at the office. He seemed to enjoy his position as a supervisor and though his was not the final word; he certainly had influence over who would be fired. In short, this man was a corporate bully whom I literally personalized everything he said. Meanwhile, his anger and aggression had little to do with me. This was all about him. But in transit, his words cut me down like the Solomon Islanders would kill a tree.
This person told me that I was too sensitive and that I needed to thicken my skin. I was told to put my big boy pants on by a person who needed someone to bully, no different from a bully on the playground in grade school.
I have grown since then. I have grown because of this. In fact, this has empowered me to be the type of leader that encourages his team over bullying them into position. Plus, the way I see this is my type of leadership will keep me from being called into the office of human resources.
Fulghum was right sticks and stones. Words do have meaning.
So use them wisely.