The Power of the Words You Use

By Keith Varnum

When I was only 22, I found myself thrust into the job of managing a bustling natural food store in Boston.

I hadn’t ask for the promotion. I enjoyed my previous job of produce manager. Fruits and vegetables are easier to manage than people! And before that job, I was very content unloading delivery trucks all day. It was good exercise—and bags of rice are even easier to manage than fruits and vegetables. I liked my jobs easy, my days flowing. My motto was: “No stress, no mess!”

Unfortunately I quickly discovered that the position of store manager was a vortex of turmoil and tension. The position was a magnet for stress. Every day, I heard 30 times, “Keith, we have a problem!” And guess what? … My job was to find a solution to the problem. Now!

After just a few days on the job, I was overwhelmed and paralyzed with the back up of problems to solve. I couldn’t sleep for the nightmares I had of hundreds of people chasing me down in the store shouting “We have a problem, Keith!”

I prayed for a way to survive the onslaught of problems at the store. One night my prayers were answered. From deep inside me came a gentle suggestion: “Banish the word problem! That word carries such heavy, burdensome connotations for you that you can’t function well in its energy field.”

This helpful guide reminded me of all the people in my life who used this word a lot—my father, mother, brother, school teachers, sports coaches, bosses. I felt the immense morphic field of the word problem. And the intense seriousness of the energy with which it is used in our culture!

So, the next morning I instituted an official ban on the word problem in my store. Employees had to find a substitute for that word. I suggested the word situation. So, now all day long I had people addressing me with the words, “Keith, we have a situation.”

I immediately noticed that my reaction to the word situation was dramatically different from my reaction to the word problem. I didn’t cringe as much when I heard situation. I stayed more open. And thus, I was much better able to listen and hear what was being said to me. And thus, I would respond faster and more effectively than when the energy field of problem was invoked.

I also noticed that the energy or vibration of the employees was markedly different when they used the word situation rather than problem. They were calmer, less tense, less urgent—less serious. Therefore, the whole interaction was lighter, more flowing—and more quickly resolved. My employees and I often even broke into a laugh at the notion that “Oh, my, God, we have a situation!!!”

The effect of changing just one word in our everyday communication had an immediate and cumulative effect on the store. The new playful vibration of situation had a radically positive effect on the atmosphere of the store. I was more cheerful and approachable. The employees were more relaxed and open to customers. The customers were happier. The result of every employee coming from a light-hearted, flowing space of situation instead of the serious, rigid energy of problem made for a radically higher energy, fun space in the store.

At that same time the daily dollar volume in the store tripled! I was so successful at managing the situations at the retail store level, I was quickly whisked up to the wholesale and distribution level of company, becoming a member of the Board of Directors and Vice President in charge of Product Procurement, Development and Research. And, boy, did the word situation come in handy on the level of million dollar decisions made every day!

This was my first personal experience of the power of words! Since this time, I constantly experiment with my choice of words—searching for the most clear and effective words to use in every communication with others and myself!

I looked at the word emotion and saw a clue to the meaning of the word: e-motion = “energy in motion.” I began to use the words energy, vibration or sensation to represent the meaning of the word emotion. I now see and feel emotion as “energy in motion.” And it’s now easier for me to allow emotions to naturally come up and out of my body, my being and my experience

I began to substitute the word challenging for hard, tough or difficult. And now I experience situations being more easy to shift and change.

Our words create a perceptual filter through which we experience our world. Our words attract and create the nature of our experiences.

If you’d like to play with the power of words, ask yourself these questions the next time you encounter a problem in life:

If I labeled this problem as simply a “situation” or “challenge” or “experience,” how would I feel?

If I didn’t look at this situation as “bad” or “wrong” or “negative,” how would I see it?

How would the situation look, if I saw it from a different point of view?

Have fun!