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Understanding the power of words

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This old proverb is often the response to childhood bullying, but I believe it dismisses the effect that words can have. Words have the power to cut deep, to make someone question their own self-worth and can have lasting negative effect on a person’s life.

Once words are said, or sent, they linger forever. There is no rewind or undo button. While an apology can be offered, the damage of words is rarely forgotten.

As a new school year approaches and as we enter Suicide Prevention Month, it is more important than ever to monitor our words. When chosen carefully, words can help heal, they can provide hope and they can remind someone how much they matter.

Before speaking or pressing “send,” ask yourself:

▪ Are your words nonjudgmental? As community members, it is our responsibility to look out for those who may be struggling, check in with them and encourage them to reach out for help. Offering a gentle word of support or listening in a nonjudgmental way can make a world of difference.

▪ Are you coming from a place of acceptance? We are all different — it is what makes the world a beautiful place. It is important to embrace that diversity and to seek common ground, understanding and acceptance.

▪ Are you using “I” statements? The use of “I” statements provides the chance to explore feelings and behaviors without anyone getting defensive. It provides a safe place to open a conversation that needs to take place.

▪ Are your words kind? We all need a gentle hand to grasp onto from time to time. By choosing words that inspire and encourage, we have the power to be that hand and to change the course of someone’s day.

▪ Have you given yourself time to respond? Sometimes we just need a few minutes (or hours) to craft an appropriate response. It’s OK to take a break from a conversation or to allow time to figure out the best way to react.

No one is perfect. Mistakes will happen and there will be times when words just slip off our tongues, after all we are human. However, when we deliberately think about our words and how they will be perceived, we can limit potential harm.

Every day we have the choice to decide what words we will put out into the universe. The choice to build someone up or to tear someone down. What will you do?

Marisa Vicere is the president of the Jana Marie Foundation.