Words are powerful! Choose them wisely

When speaking with your veterinary coworkers, consider the words you use. Are they bringing your colleagues down or lifting them up?

“Susie, you did a good job, but I am sorry to say, you should always feed patients at 5:30 p.m.”

This sentence oozes with all kinds of wrong words. I’m not referring to the correct use regarding their meaning. What I’m talking about is their intent. Words are powerful!

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power, with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble,” writes Yehuda Berg.1

When speaking with your veterinary coworkers, consider the words you use. Are they bringing your colleagues down or lifting them up?

In the first sentence of this article, the person is trying to ease the criticism by starting with a compliment, “You did a good job.” As you probably picked up on, the rest of the sentence negates this praise. While it might seem benign this one time, what happens the next time the person offers a compliment to Susie? She’s going to be waiting for the “but I did something wrong” part.

Actively choose words that enrich conversations and support relationship building. Throughout this article, you will find examples of words that hinder and ways to improve a conversation to make it uplifting. Let’s start by looking at four words to remove from your vocabulary:

I love you, but…

How often has someone attempted to compliment you, then destroyed their praise by negating the statement with “but,” just like in our Susie example. Another personal example may be, “I love you (that’s a statement in itself), but (this little word negates all the ones that came before it) I need you to change.” While maybe a bit exaggerated, the point hits home in a bold way. Let’s consider the following;

Example: “I really appreciate you helping Mrs. Smith, but next time, you should take the sack of dog food out to the car for her.”

Subtle fix: “I really appreciate you helping Mrs. Smith by taking the dog food off the shelf for her. In the future, perhaps you can also take the dog food to her car.”

Words to replace “but” may include “and,” “consider,” or “maybe” (to alter the statement into a question). Or perhaps it’s appropriate to allow the statement to come to an end. “I love you.” Leave the “fixing” statement for another time.

Overuse of sorry

Consider how many times in a day you say “sorry,” whether something was your fault or not. When this word is used too often or too easily, it devalues a true, earnest apology. And when used inappropriately, we are essentially diminishing ourselves and stating the other person is better than us, which reflects low self-esteem.

Example: “Sorry,” when someone brushes against you in a crowded hallway. “Sorry I couldn’t answer earlier,” when you are unable to get to the phone right away. “Sorry you had to wait,” when someone has been on hold. “Sorry, the client yelled at you,” when it wasn’t your fault.

Subtle fix: “Pardon me,” when a statement is needed at all (apologetic eye contact may suffice). “Thank you for calling today.” “Thank you for holding. How may I help you?” “Are you OK? I heard the client yelled at you.”

Focusing on the present or moving forward with the situation may help with how to form a phrase. You could also assess whether the situation even needs to be acknowledged. Sometimes silence is appropriate response.

Saying sorry all the time, especially in a work environment, sets you up for being a sorry individual, seen as incompetent, and prone to mistakes. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition, like the “boy who cried wolf,” the word and the meaning behind it will start being dismissed by coworkers, thus losing value and credibility.

Words to use instead of sorry:

  • Excuse me, pardon me
  • I regret
  • It is unfortunate
  • That’s sad

Should

What is the visual image when the word “should” is spoken in a certain way? You might as well shake your pointer finger at the person, as it’s the same feeling. It is laden with guilt, judgment, and negativity.

In the above example, “… you ‘should’ take the sack of dog food out to the car for her.” Did you catch it? It is a negative word. The word “should” suggests the person has no sense or concept of alternatives.

Subtle fix: “In the future, perhaps you can also take the dog food to her car.” It offers one suggestion to making the situation better.

You could also phrase it as a teaching moment. “I really appreciate you helping Mrs. Smith by taking the dog food off the shelf for her. To offer even better customer service, what else can we do to help Mrs. Smith?” See what the person says before offering your solution.

You may use “consider,” “may,” “could,” or “the preferred way.” These are a few examples. Train the brain to replace “should” with a healthier, positive word.

Always and never

Absolutes are rarely the truth. “You never put away the instruments!” Really, never? “You always come to work late!” Really, always?

In the first sentence of this article, “… always feed the patients at 5:30 p.m.” Really, is that the case? What about patients that had surgery later in the day? So 5:31 p.m. won’t work? You get the point.

Using absolutes too often leads to loss of credibility. People will see you as someone who exaggerates to make a point, rather than staying more factual. In some cases, as soon as a person hears the word “always” or “never,” he may dismiss the rest of what you say, missing any message you may have intended.

Comments about sarcasm

“Sarcasm is a tool people use to make a point, hide a flaw, or somehow manipulate those around them. Used too often and for the wrong reasons, sarcasm can negatively affect the flow of a productive, harmonious workplace,” states Steve Smith, business and executive coach at Growth Source Coaching.2

Just like humor, sarcasm can be used effectively; however, one must understand the audience and circumstance. If you don’t have a good relationship and understanding with another person, it is best not to use it.

Sarcasm is rarely professional. Therefore, using it with your clients is probably inappropriate. In addition, ignoring sarcasm can be difficult because it usually has a dagger to the heart or mind attached to it.

If sarcastic comments are being used in the clinic setting, perhaps it’s time to have a conversation with your team. Help them identify sarcasm, show them how it is hurtful, and work together to create statements that are supportive and not demeaning.

What else?

There are other words in the average vocabulary that can be replaced with better alternatives to improve the conversation. Given the following list, identify more appropriate words or phrases to replace these words:

  • Stupid
  • Hate
  • Loser
  • Really
  • Literally

What other words can you think of? Now choose an even better word.

  • ___________.

Keep in mind, each word carries a lot of intent as it leaves your lips. Consider whether your words are building someone up or tearing them down. Be thoughtful—words are powerful.

Consider using this article to open up a conversation with your team. Identify 10 words to remove from the team vocabulary and 10 words (or series of words) to use as replacements. Write the list down and post it in a well viewed area. The intent is to encourage a shift in word usage to elevate the veterinary team to the next level of communication and relationship building.

Rebecca Rose, CVT, certified career coach, founder, and president at CATALYST Veterinary Professional Coaches, has a diverse background in the veterinary community. She has worked in and managed clinics, collaborates with industry partners, and facilitates engaging team workshops. Rose’s enthusiasm for professional development in veterinary medicine is contagious, as she encourages and supports veterinary teams in reaching their highest potential. She can be reached via getCATALYST@CATALYSTVetPC.com.

References

1 The Power of Spoken Words, Dr. Hyder Zahed, HuffPost, Feb 2015

2 How to Handle Sarcasm in the Workplace, Steve Smith, Growth Source Coaching, August 2015, https://www.growthsourcecoaching.com/blog/how-to-handle-sarcasm-in-the-workplace

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