As parents, leaders or friends, we have to be careful with the words we say. Though words can’t physically hurt us, they can do as much damage as any weapon. My mother taught me in my early years to respond to others hurtful words with “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But my mother was wrong; words can hurt. Yes, I know – words cannot hurt me if I don’t allow them to. Paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel hurt without your permission. Yeah right; easier said than done.

Athletes trash talk to get into the minds of their opponents to gain a competitive edge. During this collegiate football season, it was interesting to watch in the media how some players and coaches were very careful with the words they used to describe their opponents, while others were quite careless. As one sports analyst commented, “You better be careful with what you say, you don’t want to ignite the passions of your opponent.”

I have a close personal friend who works for a boss who is abusive and who is not careful with words he uses, words that have actually caused my friend’s blood pressure to go up this past year. He had a one-on-one with his boss to discuss the issue. His boss just shrugged it off, told my friend to just let his words roll off his back like water off a duck’s back. “After all,” he said. “It’s just the way I am.” He has no clue how his words are negatively impacting the productivity of his people.

Words can build or destroy; they can fill one with enthusiasm or suck the air out of a room. Words can add or take away; they can encourage or discourage. Words can make you cry or laugh, cheer you up or tear you down. They can be respectful or disrespectful; they can impart gratitude or ingratitude. Words sometimes even have power over life or death. That’s why great leaders and communicators are careful with the words they use. Words can motivate and inspire constituents to action and increased performance.

Recently I spoke at the international sales meeting of Kraus Flooring. It was an exciting event, and I could feel the enthusiasm of the sales team. What created that enthusiasm?  Words. Not just any words, but affirmingwords. These were not my words, but the affirming words of the management team.

I sat back, observed, watched and listened. The management team generated the emotion and enthusiasm in the sales force that is required for a salesperson to influence customers. To convince others, salespeople themselves must first be convinced.

What are affirming words? They demonstrate that the speaker values the person to whom the words are spoken. Affirming words affirm the potential and contribution of people. They build; they generate hope; they inspire, motivate, give respect and show gratitude. People that are affirmed believe in themselves, have high self-esteem, are productive and deliver results. “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel,” the late Sam Walton once said. “If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

One of the more effective ways to affirm others is using words of recognition. Recognition is a powerful motivator. At the awards dinner for Kraus Flooring, the top performers were recognized.  The smile on their faces communicated to me that it was a relief that someone noticed how hard they had worked. What’s ironic is that recognition and praise cost nothing, yet yield big dividends. And yet, the world is filled with otherwise bright people who are absolute duds at delivering recognition. Recognition will help hang onto talented people, when money can’t. According to the Gallup Organization, people need to receive recognition at least once every seven days to stay focused and engaged in their work. If recognition is so important for constituents or children, why aren’t we all doing it more?

A form of recognition is words of gratitude. We are attracted to grateful people. Grateful people confirm that we matter, that we make a difference and contribute. A sincere “thank you” affirms us and makes us feel valuable. During the Kraus meeting, “thanks” was expressed many times to the sales team and the staff. If employees feel their work is appreciated, they will probably pass that appreciation on to their customers, where it adds to the bottom line.

I will never forget my wife’s reaction when I realized that I had never thanked her for always finding clean clothes in my closet. That “Thank you” generated so much personal benefit, I wondered why I hadn’t expressed gratitude to her more often.

The critical responsibility of a leader is to paint a compelling, desirable picture of the future for his or her constituents. A vision or a future desirable result generates hope and mobilizes followers. When leaders talk about their vision, they affirm the future. The leaders at Kraus communicated their vision in affirming words with hope and excitement. They backed it up with new products and programs the company will be introducing in 2013. I thought to myself, “What an exciting time to be a member of the team at Kraus!”

I could go on and on. Affirming words build. Affirming words can be kind words, encouraging words or respectful words. Asking a customer’s permission to put them on hold or to excuse yourself to see another customer, affirms the value of that customer. The words you use communicate to others whether you value them, are indifferent to them or disrespect them. The words you use communicate more than just their meaning. Business results come through people. And people are mobilized by words.

It’s no wonder that Ernest Hemingway spent hours working on the words of a single sentence or paragraph of one of his novels. He knew what he wanted to say and he wanted to say it right. He wanted to be precise because words do matter.

 Are you aware of the words you speak? Do they generate the behaviors you desire in your people or children? Are they affirming words? If you are not sure, maybe you ought to listen to the words you say.