Words Are Powerful and They Matter



That old saying, “Stick and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is 100% false. Words are powerful and they matter. It is a fact that words can hurt or they can heal.

“Speak what you seek until you see what you’ve said.” We use affirmations, declaration, and proclamations because we understand that words have power.

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” We now understand the negative impact of verbal abuse, constant criticism, and discouragement.

As a social work manager, internship supervisor, and human services professor, I always stress the importance of words/language and how that impacts the people we serve. One of my biggest pet peeves is the term “at risk” usually used to label youth. Every youth, every person for that matter, is ‘at risk’ of something.

  • Every teen who engages in sexual activity is at risk of teen pregnancy regardless of their race, ethnicity, education level or socio-economic status.
  • Every pedestrian who crosses the street is ‘at risk’ of getting hit by a car regardless of their race, ethnicity, education level or socio-economic status.

And no, ‘at promise’ isn’t the opposite and the way to combat the negative categorization, in my opinion. Why? Because every youth is also at promise but they term is still only used to describe young people that others feel have deficits. The solution is to label situations and circumstances, not people. And please don’t bring up statistics because in my opinion statistics are numbers, not people.

Need more proof of how words succeed in negative portrayals of certain groups of people and protections for others? Consider these terms:

  • Black on Black crime versus White on White crime (This isn’t even a ‘thing’ and statistics show that people kill in proximity to areas they live)
  • Crack epidemic versus opioid crisis
  • Single moms versus unmarried moms
  • January 6th insurrection versus January 6th demonstration/protest

We’ve all heard stories of people told they would never succeed or amount to anything. We don’t want to be the cause of someone living down to low expectations.

I am choosing my words more carefully in my personal life as well. I used to say, “I can’t” as in not today or I don’t have the capacity for that. As I get more specific with my language and embrace the power of my words, I am retiring those phrases. Instead of “I can’t”, I am now saying “I choose not to” and I may or may not add “if I want to be productive today” or something similar depending on the amount of explanation I want to give a person. Instead of “I don’t have the capacity”, I am saying “I refuse to engage” because I do have the capacity, but I am only engaging with people/places/things that won’t drain me at this time. In this instance, I am using my words to reclaim my power.

How will you use your words to uplift and empower yourself and others?

If you are a high-performing Woman of Color in social work leadership who needs or desires additional career resources and encouragement, APPLY to my On My Terms leadership coaching program to move beyond the limitations and labels that may have been placed on you and step into your power as a leader and trailblazer.

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Nicki Sanders, MSW, supports high-performing women of color in social work leadership in developing careers that feed their hearts, minds, and wallets. As Founder and CEO of Nicki Sanders Leadership Consulting, her mission is simple – to eliminate toxic workplaces by developing skilled, empathetic, and goal-oriented leaders who have the vision, support, and resources to create a culture where business prospers, and employees thrive individually and collectively. Nicki has an extensive background in nonprofit management leading high-functioning, multi-disciplinary teams, volunteer recruitment and retention, and social impact programming. She is an accomplished professor, coach, trainer, and group facilitator who has combined her gift for authentic relationships, Master of Social Work degree, and over 20 years of diverse work experience to create a life and career aligned with her values and purpose. Nicki is a lover of cupcakes, travel, and 80’s hip hop and R&B music.

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