Remember the childhood chant, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me?" Well, that little ditty is a treasure of hidden wisdom, and is more of a "dialogue starter" than a be-all, end-all truth.
On one hand, it's true that we all have a choice in what we say to ourselves and others, and we have a choice in how much we allow others' words (spoken, written, and "sent via body language," etc.) to harm us. These are the areas where we hold responsibility, and taking that responsibility can make an enormous difference.
On the other hand, recent advances in quantum physics as highlighted, for example, in the film What the Bleep confirm that negative words, if not very consciously minimized or countered, can have very harmful effects.
In the Ivy Sea Word Power article series, I'll explore various perspectives about "the power of words," how our individual choices can make a positive or negative difference, and how such "word magic" can be used for good or for harm by individuals and in organizations.
This article takes a look at how word-choice can be a form of consciously employed but subtle violence, both in individual interactions and in organizational systems. Choosing more consciously and becoming more skillful begins with a more conscious awareness of, in this case, some of the forms of "word violence."
Once aware, we can assess the degree to which we contribute to, practice, or tolerate "word violence," and find skillful ways to minimize our own practice of it and reduce our complicity with others who practice "word violence."
When words are used as a form of subtle violence
Often, when we think of violence, we think of the very overt, loud, obvious kind primarily physical violence, but also in the form of "over the top," very loud, confrontational (and frightening) yelling, screaming or threatening. To be sure, these are examples of "word violence."
But there is also a more subtle and insidious form of "word violence," and this occurs much more frequently because it "goes under the radar" and masks itself as "normal." While it can be easily dismissed or overlooked because of its quieter presentation, it can do serious damage none-the-less, by creating stress, fostering oppression, deflating motivation, curtailing creativity, and other unfortunate results including leading the way to more overt forms of violence.
In many organizations, and in certain organizational or group cultures, "word violence" can be systemic and even institutionalized. In such cultures, many individuals may unconsciously practice "word violence" as a norm, both to perpetuate (e.g. fit in and/or survive) in a competitive, scarcity-based and otherwise dysfunctional culture, or to actually thrive in such a culture.
Five common forms of "word violence"
In individual interactions, one who uses the power of words in subtly violent ways may be doing so consciously, in a purposeful effort to manipulate, or unconsciously, out of his or her "unexamined Shadow." Examples of subtle "word violence" can show up as malicious gossip, passive-aggression, purposeful withholding, inconsistency, incivility, and bullying, to name a few. For now, we'll take a closer look at the latter five.
(1) In the case of passive-aggression, "word violence" can manifest as a result of the passive-aggressive's strategy of saying one thing while intending and doing another. For example, in many organizations, a person with a tendency to act passive-aggressively may give agreement or approval while in conversation with you, but then take a different course of action than the one you agreed upon, fail to participate altogether, or actually sabotage your effort by withholding information or brewing discontent or confusion among colleagues.
When you confront a passive-aggressive about these behaviors, he or she will deny them outright, or even deflect accusations or blame back at you. In these ways, his or her choice of words or the choice to withhold certain words can be a form of subtle violence.
(2) Someone who consciously withholds is practicing another form of "word violence." A withholder may elect to withhold praise, feedback, agreement, or information for the purposes of gaining some measure of control or having some specific impact on you. Withholding may be a tool used by a passive-aggressive person, or may simply be the communication-control strategy of choice. Either way, withholding can escalate from lower-impact word-violence to a form of mental abuse.
By withholding praise, feedback, support, or information, for example, the withholder increases his or her odds of "throwing you off-balance" and thus making you feel uncertain about what you're doing. When leaders withhold praise or other information, his or her staff members are unclear on their roles and priorities, and would most likely suffer greater feelings of insecurity, lower morale, and general stress. Because these are very often ill-effects that result from the person's decision to withhold, it's a form of "word violence."
Withholding draws its power from the imprinting of an authoritarian system, in which people have been trained by more overt communications including body language so that ultimately the overt words or facial/body expression are no longer needed in order for the person in the perceived position of authority to manipulate the situation to his or her advantage. In an interaction in which this dynamic is present, a person simply chooses to withhold at certain points in the conversation, thus triggering deeply held patterns.
The ideal outcome in the withholder's mind is for the other person to capitulate his or her will and succumb to or "fall into line" with the withholder's desires or interests. Unless the other person consciously disentangles him or herself, the cultural patterns will tend to play out in the withholder's favor, which is why he or she uses this strategy.
As will be mentioned later in this article, withholding (like any of these examples) can escalate to become a form of more overt bullying, when a person uses withholding in an attempt to throw another off-balance and thus increase his or her position of perceived power.
(3) Inconsistency can be another form of "word violence," particularly if a person is aware of or consciously chooses inconsistency as a means to an end (usually a feeling of control). Someone who is inconsistent may tell you different things at different times, or tell different things to different people, thus creating confusion and uncertainty.
For example, the inconsistent person may give an assignment, and then when the other person is well along with the work and checks in regarding progress, may blithely say, "Oh that. We're not doing that anymore. Didn't I tell you?" Another manifestation of inconsistency is when a person "runs hot and cold" being friendly and supportive one minute, and distant or curt the next, with the effect of keeping others in a state of perpetual imbalance. One common saying for this manifestation is when a person "pulls the rug from beneath your feet."
Inconsistency can also escalate from mere unskillfulness to a type of "word violence" if an individual repeatedly and consciously demonstrates inconsistency between what he or she says or demands and what he or she actually does or models.
(4) Workplace incivility can be another form of "word violence" that includes passive-aggressive behavior, withholding, inconsistency, bullying, and other forms of communication and behavior that most people would identify as rude, uncooperative, hostile, or insensitive.
Examples of chronic incivility might include not returning phone calls or emails, not complying with requests from colleagues, lying, blaming, extreme curtness, or withholding information or support. Such forms of incivility, according to several studies, have increased over the past decade as a result of, among other things, the perceived insecurity that has inflicted the workplace, and a seeming increase in workplace aggression, nonstop change, and competitiveness.
As with other forms of "word violence," incivility can escalate into more overt forms of violence, and, at a minimum, jeopardizes enjoyment, satisfaction, and overall well-being each of which affects an individual's ability to participate fully and to the highest of his or her capability.
(5) When "word violence" occurs in the form of bullying, it can begin to seem less covert and start to appear on the radar of either other individuals or, depending on the impact or results, within the realm of organizational rejection of the behavior. The latter depends largely on the organization in question, since some have lower levels of tolerance for bullying and subtle violence, while others are thoroughly infected with and tolerate such dubious practices.
According to some experts, bullying within organizations has increased over the last ten to fifteen years. Bullying may include overt hostility in the form of yelling, name-calling, baiting, or belittling; or it may include the more subtle but no less insidious forms of "word violence" that I've highlighted above.
Derisive comments including those which are veiled as humor or friendliness can also be a form of bullying and incivility. Typical examples include comments or "jokes" that derisively refer to gender, spiritual practice, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or perceived intelligence.
One clue is that such comments or "jokes" aren't funny, and are often intended to diminish or make someone uncomfortable, or sow seeds of dissention and create factions none of which are productive by any definition in any kind of group or organization. In fact, such "word violence," like other forms, tends to have high individual and organizational costs, even though it is often tolerated and practiced to some degree in most workplaces.
Interestingly, the conscious withholding of a comment or feedback that most average people would consider a norm can also be a form of bullying in this case, the bully is manipulating another by purposely withholding approval or agreement.
Is "word violence" on the rise?
Certainly the tenor of the 2004 U.S. election campaign and the general atmosphere in Washington featured what to many seemed a markedly higher degree of incivility and "word violence" which included name-calling, withholding information, inconsistency, lying, bullying, and other forms of incivility.
Unfortunately, this seems to have rippled outward into the hallways and cubicles of Corporate America as well, although it was certainly a clear trend well before 2004 (the late-Nineties dot-com and hi-tech cultures come to mind, where brazenly overt incivility reached epidemic levels).
Indeed, like other forms of subtle violence, "word violence" in some form, and to varuomg degrees of overtness, is woven deeply into the fabric of traditional Corporate America, and is a norm that needs to evolve from this lower form into a higher form of relating and working together. Currently, the lower form is simply transported from place to place, from interaction to interaction, leaving destruction in its wake.
Like the "broken window" phenomenon where one broken window will invite more vandalism and degeneration subtle forms of violence, when tolerated as a norm, simply acts as fuel for more egregious breaches of ethics and humanity. We need to look no further than the headlines for evidence.
"Word violence" can be so insidious that, over a relatively short time, the standard falls dramatically and yet what is considered "normal" or what is tolerated increases, creating an increasingly vulgar, crude, and cruel culture. So incivility and "word violence" soon become a new "norm." In this case, history tells us that such a norm only leads to group, organizational, or societal dysfunction and ultimately break-down.
Systemic or organizational violence a feature of "corporate psychopathy" ultimately comes down to various individuals choosing to act in a way that is uncivil, violent, manipulative, or otherwise disregarding of the ill-effect on others or the common good (including shared resources, animals, etc.).
As with any relatively neutral tactic or strategy, the effect of one's choice of words or communication strategy is really, for better or worse, influenced by the underlying intention and desired goals. By being more conscious of our own intentions and choices and by refusing to be treated with or tolerate incivility, or be on the receiving end of "word violence" we can begin to slowly raise the norm to a more skillful, compassionate, and productive level.
For more information on the topics of civility, skillful communication, conflict prevention, etc., see the links below. Ivy Sea Founder Jamie Walters is currently at work on a more detailed article or "white paper" on the forms of subtle violence including "word violence" that occur in our organizations and communities.