Episode: The Power of Your Words to Shape Outcomes
Lead to Win is brought to you by LeaderBox, a monthly reading experience curated by leaders for leaders. Learn more at leaderbox.com.
Michael Hyatt: In your lifetime, you will utter more than 860 million words, the equivalent of speaking the entire text of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary nearly 15 times. What do those words add up to? What is the effect of your words on other people, on yourself? What are you accomplishing with your words?
Megan Hyatt Miller: On March 4, 1865, the American Civil War was within days of completion. Abraham Lincoln stood on the steps of the capitol building and spoke these words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Lincoln’s second inaugural address has been described as being “among the handful of semi-sacred texts by which Americans conceived their place in the world.” This speech, perhaps more than anything else, united a nation reeling from years of bloody conflict and set its course for the twentieth century. Words can create. They can also destroy.
Michael: In 1899, a largely unknown Communist agitator named Vladimir Lenin composed his first major writing, The Development of Capitalism in Russia. The book was a success, despite the fact that Lenin had no training in economics and Russia had an agrarian, not a capitalist economy at the time. For nearly two decades, Lenin continued to write.
Though he was born to a middle-class family, he cast himself as the hero of the working class. Despite the fact that he had never marched in the streets or been in any real confrontation, he incited others to violent opposition of the government. He viewed the pen as an instrument of war and urged his readers to arm themselves with revolvers, bombs, knives, and rags soaked in kerosene, then to beat up and kill their rivals.
Megan: Lenin dealt brutally with his detractors in print also, practicing a kind of scorched-earth journalism. One historian described his literary style this way: intolerant, sarcastic, correct about everything, and hell-bent on having the last word. Lenin was a master troll, king of the flame war. Lenin wanted to recreate the world according to his vision. The tools of his trade were alternative facts, incendiary provocation, mocking, derision, sarcasm, and arguments that had no basis in logic or reality. And he succeeded.
Michael: On October 25, 1917, Bolshevik forces began the Communist revolution in Russia, which put Lenin’s violent language into flesh-and-blood terms. More than 400,000 were killed in the civil war, and as many as 70 to 100 million more died as a series of Communist dictators translated Lenin’s incendiary rhetoric into action. Every word has power. A leader’s words have even greater power.
Megan: What are you accomplishing with your words?
Michael: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.
Megan: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work, succeed at life, and lead with confidence. In this episode, we’re talking about the power of your words to create a better future for you and your team.
Megan: As leaders, we all want to see forward movement, but negative speech in the form of grumbling, complaining, or criticism can undo years of progress. Based on years of shaping the culture of organizations, we’ll show you three key principles to ensure your words have a positive effect on your organization and yourself. When we’re done, you’ll be able to avoid sabotaging yourself and others with negative speech, and you’ll gain the ability to motivate your team to reach their most ambitious goals.
Michael: I’m excited about it too, but before we dive into this fascinating topic, I’d like to ask you guys a favor. If you’re enjoying this program, would you please share it with others? The simplest way to do that is to leave a review, and it’s super simple. Just go to mh.fullfocus.co/reviewit. You can do this in less than two minutes, I promise. Thanks so much.
Megan: So, Dad, those two examples in the opener today were really stunning. Talk about putting it in sharp relief.
Michael: Absolutely. Words have the power to create. It’s something we all intuitively know. In fact, in our faith tradition, we talk about God creating by the word. He spoke it, and then it happened. Our words also really shape the future.
Megan: We often, though, kind of downplay the significance of our words versus those of others. It’s like we put a lot of importance on what other people say but not so much on our own words, like they don’t really matter that much.
Michael: So many leaders don’t believe their own words have power, but they do. Our thoughts become words, and those words influence actions. Author Ingrid Bengis wrote what has become a classic quote on this subject. She said, “Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.” That’s true for each of us, and we need to grapple with the gravity of that.
Megan: Okay. You have three principles to apply here, and together they form this feedback loop you’ve mentioned: thoughts to words and then actions. What’s the first principle?
Michael: The first principle is your thoughts become your words. In other words, the things you think become the things you say. This is probably self-evident, but before there can be words there has to be a thought. The sentence has to form in our head before it gets expressed in words. For example, frustration becomes complaining, grudges become insults, and powerlessness becomes sarcasm. Conversely, gratitude becomes thanks, hope becomes encouragement, and delight becomes compliments.
Megan: When we find ourselves speaking negatively, we should really interrogate that. “Why am I doing this?” we should ask ourselves. It reminds me of that question Brené Brown asks, which is, “What is the story I’m telling myself about [fill in the blank]?” We unconsciously tell ourselves stories, usually negative ones, that can drive our lives and shape our lives if we’re not careful. This is a good way to become conscious of that. It’s another principle of self-awareness, I think.
Michael: For leaders, it means we have to kind of back this upstream to our thoughts, and that’s where the battle is won or lost. Sometimes when we find things coming out of our mouths that are negative, we need to back it up and say, “What was the thought that produced that?” What goes into our heads is eventually going to be expressed. That’s why we have to guard that seed idea.
Apply this to your social media and news media consumption. For example, people think they can consume pornography and it doesn’t have any impact, doesn’t hurt anybody else, but it does. Not only is there the disrespect and the objectification of women, but in addition to that, it shapes a kind of thinking that often gets expressed in words and actions that are not healthy, and worse.
Megan: Absolutely. Conversely, when your thoughts are consumed with things that are constructive or edifying, then that gets expressed in your words. Your words become edifying and constructive to others and to yourself, and you build a whole life around that.
Michael: To emphasize the point, that’s why we have to be very mindful, as leaders, about our thinking. We can’t afford to just let ourselves go and fantasize or tell ourselves untruths or anything else, because that mental environment is going to have an impact on what we express, and once it gets expressed, then it starts to impact other people. In fact, as we’ll see in a second, it impacts us.
Megan: It just made me think about self-awareness, which is something we talk a lot about. Self-leadership, and self-awareness as an aspect of self-leadership. When we’re talking about that, very often what we mean is how your actions impact other people. That’s the part of self-awareness we talk about and many leaders are unconscious of.
As you said a minute ago, you almost have to go upstream and ask not only how your actions impact others but how your thoughts impact your words that impact your actions that impact others. Your very thoughts themselves need to be in your conscious awareness so you can shape them to drive toward an intentional outcome rather than some kind of drifting, passive place you find yourself.
Megan: So the first principle is pretty obvious: thoughts become words. I’m with you so far, but I have a feeling this gets a little more complicated. What’s next?
Michael: The second principle is that your words become your thoughts.
Megan: That’s kind of tricky, because it’s exactly opposite of what you think. It seems like it would be the other way around only.
Michael: The truth is it’s both/and. This is a scientifically proven principle. We may have a negative view of self-talk or positive affirmations. I know a lot of people do, but a positive affirmation is simply something you know to be true about yourself. The research confirms that the words you speak affect how you think and feel. One psychologist concluded that “Self-affirmations can have lasting benefits when they touch off a cycle of adaptive potential, a positive feedback loop.”
Now, psychologists will never say it in an easy way, but all that’s saying is that when you say it, it’s going to have an impact on your thinking. That’s why affirmations…not the kind that affirm something that’s crazy and out there, but something that’s true…can have an impact on our thinking.
Megan: Okay, I want to draw a distinctive there, because I think that’s really important. I’m just going to be straight about it. There’s kind of this woo-woo affirmation thing that just sounds cheesy as all get out. If you’re a serious leader and somebody starts talking to you about affirmations, you feel like you should go start burning the incense or something, and that’s not what we’re talking about here. Right? What we’re really talking about is affirming what is already positively true about who you are and your identity, not like, “I am living in a mansion in Beverly Hills surrounded by piles of gold.” That’s not the kind of affirmation we’re talking about.
Michael: The problem is we’re always affirming things about ourselves with our words, and particularly with our thinking. For example, I was playing golf yesterday with a friend of mine who hit a bad shot, and he said to himself out loud, “You idiot! You always do that on this hole.”
Michael: Guess what happens. Because he affirms that every time we play and every time we play that hole, guess what he does. He always thinks that, and that always results in that same action. It’s a way of programming. He could say something different, and this would be an affirmation. He could say what is the truth is, “Wow! That wasn’t a great shot.”
This is not an indicator that he has this predilection to always do poorly on this hole or on this particular shot. Or he could just ignore it and go on. It’s not like this is something we’re not familiar with. We’re doing this all the time. We have to be very careful about what we’re feeding our brains, because our words have the power to rewire our brains.
Megan: So again, be self-aware about the negative things you’re saying, and then choose to say something that’s more constructive. For example, we talked in a recent episode about your strategy when you speak. You may have, in previous years, focused on being nervous, but now you say your body is preparing for peak performance. That’s a positive affirmation that’s actually true, that’s actually based in science around adrenaline and all that kind of stuff. That has an infinitely more positive effect on the outcome of your speaking than it would if you just looped around all the negative things that could happen if it didn’t go well.
Michael: Totally. Again, notice, to your point about not being woo-woo, I’m affirming what’s true, because that is the truth. Adrenaline is a God-given thing that helps us perform better than we would without it.
Megan: So, Dad, you have been doing some version of positive self-talk for as long as I’ve known you. How do you go about doing that?
Michael: Well, first of all, I’m aware of my thoughts. I’m not always aware. There are times when I find myself saying something rude or angry or mean, but most of the time I catch myself and go, “What was I thinking right before that came out?” One of the things I’ve found, too, is that if I have a set of specific affirmations about a topic, where I’ve been really intentional and thoughtful about writing those out… I’ve used this example before, and you quoted me just a minute ago, but I have a set of affirmations I use right before I step onstage.
Megan: Can you tell me what those are?
Michael: Yes. These are just a few of the things I say. There are a bunch of them, and I won’t repeat all of them. I say, for example, “What I have to share today is vitally important. It matters to them, their loved ones, and to all of the people they will eventually impact.” Another one I say is, “I have the energy, the passion, and the message to make a huge impact now and for eternity. By God’s grace I’m prepared. My heart is wide open. I will connect and see transformation.”
Megan: Wow. I love that. So do you use affirmations like that in other areas of your life?
Michael: I do. I have some about my health that I repeat, because I want to affirm the value of exercising and moving and all these self-care things we’ve been talking about. So yeah, I have a specific set on all of the major categories of my life.
Megan: How does this feedback loop we’re talking about become self-perpetuating?
Michael: The more you control your thoughts, the more things are going to come out of your mouth that you like, as opposed to being tripped up by your words and ending up in conflict with other people or something.
Megan: And that support your values. Right? You come into congruence in a way that if you’re not paying attention you don’t.
Michael: Right. It’s a learned art. This is not something you can just decide to do and then you do it, but I think learning to control our thoughts and also be mindful about our words… Those are going to become mutually reinforcing and help one another.
Megan: All right. I have to pause and ask you a question. I really care a lot about authenticity. For those of you who are listening who are students of the Enneagram, I’m an Enneagram 4, which means I really care about authenticity. How do you balance the desire to be authentic or honest and have intimacy with others who are close to you and also be mindful of your thoughts and your words and be a master of those? In other words, the caricature is somebody who’s just positive psychology to the max and all they do is say positive things and they won’t ever allow themselves to express anything negative. Those people are just insufferable to be around at a certain point.
Michael: Well, I go back to the Stockdale Paradox, which is something Jim Collins talks about. The paradox is that the people who are most successful, the people who survive life’s most difficult things are people who, on the one hand, recognize the most brutal reality of their current situation… They acknowledge that on the one hand, but they don’t stop there.
Some people get stuck in that story, and that’s a downward spiral. The other part of it is believing that difficult situation is going to ultimately lead to your ultimate triumph and could become something that’s very helpful in the future. You have to maintain both of those. What’s helpful to me is to differentiate between the facts or the circumstance you’re in and the story you’re telling yourself about that situation.
Megan: Right. Back to that Brené Brown idea.
Michael: Somebody may have gone through something very difficult, and they need to acknowledge that. There’s no sense sweeping that under the rug, but if they’re not careful, they can create a story, and that story can lead to a very dramatic story that becomes incapacitating. I’ve seen this happen in a recent example I can’t go into. We can dial up the drama or dial down the drama. We can make it more intense or less intense. We have to acknowledge the fact, but then I think we have to be mindful about the interpretation or the meaning we’re placing on that.
Megan: Those are pretty subjective. There are the facts, and then there is subjective interpretation of the facts positively or negatively. We can either tell a story that’s constructive and helps us become our best selves or not. I think that’s what you’re saying.
Michael: For example, Dan Miller, author of 48 Days to the Work You Love and a good friend of ours, tells this story. There was this young man who grew up in a young Mennonite home, where it was incredibly repressive. He didn’t have access to TV, to the news, to a lot of contemporary books. It was very legalistic, and he goes through all this negative stuff. He says or this boy grew up on this farm where because he didn’t have access to the Internet, to modern media, he read all of these books and became sort of self-educated, and it’s a very positive outcome.
Michael: Well, this is his own story. Actually, it wasn’t Mennonite; it was Amish. He grew up in this situation. He could interpret the facts of his own upbringing in a negative way that would be completely debilitating and not empowering or he could interpret that as a gift. What was the gift in that? Dan tells that story, and he does it much better than I did, but it’s very dramatic and very powerful.
Megan: It’s a great example of the power of words.
Michael: Hey, if you’re enjoying this content, I want to share with you a resource I think you’ll find particularly helpful. Do you desire to be a well-read leader or someone who reads consistently and retains just about everything? I mean, we all would. Many leaders know they should be reading consistently if they want to develop their leadership, but doing this on top of all of the other daily responsibilities can be difficult. Right?
How do you know what books to read? How do you find the time? And how can you retain all you’ve read? That’s exactly why we created LeaderBox. LeaderBox is a way to automate your professional development. It’s a monthly curated reading experience for leaders created by leaders. Every month, we deliver two books chosen by us to grow your leadership. We also provide an activation guide that delivers an executive summary, big ideas, salient quotes, and powerful questions for each chapter.
Also in the box is a reading plan so you know exactly what to read each day to complete the book. On top of all this is our amazing Facebook community. I love this community, because it’s a great place to talk about the books and see what others are learning. If you want to read more books twice as fast, then LeaderBox is your solution. You can find out more at leaderbox.com.
Megan: So your thoughts become your words. That’s the first principle. The second principle is that your words become your thoughts. So we’re seeing this feedback loop take shape. What’s the third element?
Michael: The third principle is your words and thoughts eventually become your actions. Our thoughts become actions in a rather direct, obvious way. In a sense, your words are already an action. They’re already going to have an impact even if you didn’t do anything else. In another sense, anger and insults can easily turn to violence. In a larger, deeper way, your thoughts and your words together shape all of your actions. If you’re engaging in some action you don’t like, usually behind that you’re going to find words. You’re going to find thoughts that are shaping all that.
Megan: For example, as a mother… This is probably something parents can relate to. Kids can be annoying. Right?
Megan: That’s just a fact. I’m sure I fell into that category at some point in my life.
Michael: I can neither confirm nor deny.
Megan: As a mother of four, I can confirm that this is true. So can many of you listening. As a parent, though, we have the choice to either say about our children, “Gosh! They are so annoying. Every time they come into the room, whatever comes out of their mouth is irritating. It’s annoying. Why can’t you just be quiet or go away?” Or you can frame that in your mind as they’re so curious or they’re becoming who they’re going to be or they’re in the process of learning and they’re precious.
Whatever your thoughts are and whatever your words are are ultimately going to absolutely shape how you treat them. I think that’s true in our leadership. That’s true in our parenting. That’s true in our self-care and our marriages. It’s true everywhere.
Michael: So true. That reminds me of a book Zig Ziglar wrote years ago called Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World. The subtitle was Do You See the Mess or the Masterpiece? The picture on the front of the cover was a kid who had drawn on the walls. That’s kind of an innocent thing kids do, but your thinking about that will shape your response to it. Do you see the mess or the masterpiece?
Megan: That’s a great metaphor.
Michael: Psychologists have documented an even deeper link between thought and action. In 2013, psychologists in the Netherlands studied women with an eating disorder. When the women walked through a doorway they turned their shoulders and squeezed sideways, even though there was plenty of room. Why? Their self story, “I’m fat,” literally changed the way they carried themselves. If you’ve ever known anybody who has lost a significant amount of weight, they’ll do this.
Megan: It’s like they have a phantom body.
Michael: They have a phantom body. I have a friend who lost over 200 pounds, and for a while after that happened, for a year or so until he realized, he would walk through narrow doors sideways like that, not realizing he could get through it with no problem.
Megan: What you think about yourself really spills out even to your posture and the way you carry your body.
Michael: True. There was another key study that examined the brain science behind self-talk. Participants in the group that self-affirmed had increased activity in key regions of the brain’s self-processing and valuation systems. This brain activity was a predictor of changes in behavior consistent with successful affirmations. In other words, when you tell yourself you’re fat and stupid, that’s the way you behave. Kind of like my friend who was golfing. But when you tell yourself you’re smart and fit, you actually make healthier choices.
Megan: Positive words don’t just reprogram our thoughts; they actually change our behavior.
Michael: They do. In other words, one of the most powerful things we have is our beliefs, which is another kind of thinking. We will always make our behavior try to conform to our beliefs. So if we think we’re stupid, if we think we’re clumsy, if we think we’re fat, all that, we’re going to seek to make our behavior conform to that. Again, the way to change that behavior is to reprogram our thinking.
Megan: Wow. So the question, then, for leaders is, “What is my self-talk causing me to do or preventing me from doing? Where am I, basically, getting in my own way without even realizing it with my thoughts and words?”
Michael: For example, you might be saying to yourself, “I’m a terrible leader.” What you might say that would be authentic but would also be affirmational is “I’m a growing leader. I may not know everything I need to know about leadership, but I’m learning a little bit more every day.” You know what I’m saying? That’s positive, and that gives you permission to continue to grow. Yes, you’re going to make mistakes, but it’s okay. You’re growing and learning.
Megan: I love that. Beyond your own behavior, there are also huge implications for your team in terms of your thoughts and your words. What are some of those?
Michael: Well, just think about this. When we affirm our team, and many of them struggle with self-doubt…
Megan: Like maybe 100 percent of them.
Michael: Yeah. Like 100 percent of them. When we affirm them and say to them, “You’re smart. You guys are always so responsive. You guys amaze me. You wow me…” By the way, I say that quite a bit with our team, because it’s true. Notice the feedback loop. They start believing that too.
Megan: Absolutely. They end up living into that affirmation, and then what we see is it carries down to the rest of our team. It’s amazing, because everyone feels like they’re on the best team ever, and I think that’s genuine, because there’s this amazing feedback loop of feeling affirmed, of feeling seen, of feeling called out in a good way, and that’s critically important. As a leader, your words have the ability to give life or death to your team, and whatever you say or don’t say is magnified.
Michael: I didn’t plan to talk about this during this episode, but it’s particularly important when people on your team experience failure. Oftentimes you have to help them process that, because the self-talk (again, depending on their particular personality type) can be brutal. They can be incredibly bullying to themselves, not kind, not gracious with themselves. One of the great gifts we can give to the people we’re leading is to be a voice that counteracts that.
Megan: Today we’ve learned about the feedback loop that exists in your life and your leadership. Thoughts become words and words become thoughts, and together they shape the actions you take and the outcomes you produce. As we come in for a landing, I just want to remind you that only you can write the story that plays in your own head, so make it a good one. Dad, do you have any final thoughts for us?
Michael: Well, I would just agree with what you just said. It’s helpful if we can separate the facts of our experience from the way we’re interpreting them and the way we’re thinking about them and to be mindful, very mindful about the narrative and the thinking we’re doing about those experiences, because it’s going to shape everything else, your words and your actions.
Megan: As we close, I want to thank our sponsor LeaderBox. It provides automated personal development in a box. Check it out at leaderbox.com. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, you can get the show notes and a full transcript online at leadto.win.
Michael: Thanks again for joining us on Lead to Win. If you like the show, please tell your friends and colleagues about it. Leave a review of the show at mh.fullfocus.co/reviewit. We appreciate that so much.
Megan: This program is copyrighted by Michael Hyatt & Company. All rights reserved. Our producer is Nick Jaworski.
Michael: Our writers are Joel Miller and Lawrence Wilson.
Megan: Our recording engineer is Mike Burns.
Michael: Our production assistants are Aleshia Curry and Natalie Fockel.
Megan: Our intern is Winston.
Michael: We invite you to join us next week when we’ll explore the anatomy of a great decision. Until then, lead to win.