The Power of Words

Every day we transmit and receive thousands of messages in many ways – language is just one of those ways. Words are the means we use in order to communicate with others and process incoming information.  But how do words affect the quality of our communication, and more importantly, how do our lexical choices impact on our learners are some of the important questions addressed is this important article.

This guest post was written by Olga Gouni, a valued colleague who moved from English Language Teaching to the field of Psychology.

Guest post by Olga Gouni

Words & Images

Every word we utter has the power to create an image. When we say the word “home”, for instance, automatically a specific image appears inside our mind, even if the image may include vague or confused features. For one person the words may “call up” the image of a peaceful house in the countryside, for another the picture of a palace, for yet another, family quarrels, or joyful family occasions and so on and so forth.

Words & Emotions

Depending on the kind of image which the word recalls, a related emotion is generated. This happens because every word creates a biochemical reaction – peaceful, harmonious images foster feelings of serenity and inner peace, a chaotic image will generate confusion.

How the Brain Functions

Before we go on, however, it might be useful to see the way the mechanism of the Mind functions. Although there are different sub categorizations, e.g. the Conscious Mind, the Subconscious, the Unconscious Mind, the Superconscious Mind, etc. for the particular issue in focus here we will limit ourselves to the broad distinction between Conscious and Unconscious Mind.

The Conscious Mind

This part of our mind could be compared to the GateKeeper of a building. It is that part of our mind which contains

  • All our beliefs and
  • All our values systems

It has the responsibility to

  • Review and…
  • Sort our experiences

Hence, when this part of our mind receives new information, this “piece of news” :

  • is evaluated
  • is compared with existing frames of reference based on past experience
  • is filtered
  • is interpreted
  • is justified
  • is delimited
  • is censored
  • is rationalised

Following this “scrutiny” the news is either

    1. Discarded as worthless or
    2. Accepted and filed or stored away.

This process is based on previous knowledge and information which the mind has accepted as fact or truth and which it uses as reference points.
So it is very important to have such frames of reference which involve truth to as high a degree as possible and, hence, provide us with a secure basis on which to process and sort the vast volume of information which comes our way on a daily basis.

Despite the fact that new points of reference are created every day, the most critical period of our life is early childhood, because this is where the basic network of values, which colour our progress through life is created.

When the Mind performs its functions untroubled by untruths, fallacies or illusions, then it protects us and fulfils one of its basic roles – to secure our survival.

When, on the other hand it is filled with fallacies, inaccurate facts and illusions, then it becomes an obstacle to our further development because its reference points and the relevant past experiences are wrong.

The Subconscious Records

Like a videocamera, our sub-conscious records every moment of our experience of life. It records all the:

  • Colours
  • Flavours
  • Smells
  • Sounds
  • Images
  • Emotions

This is done without censorship and without any emotional charge about what it has recorded.

All this information can be recalled when we obtain permission from the GateKeeper, i.e. our Conscious Mind, or when we manage to detour round it, to bypass it.

If that is achieved, then we may change the “registered facts” and, thus, to change our present.

Let us go back to what happens when we receive some information.

The conscious mind can distinguish a positive from a negative word.

The subconscious mind, though, cannot do this and cannot process negative messages.

It cannot recognise or process words like:


For instance, if we hear the phrase “There are no pink elephants.”, the conscious mind:

    1. Creates the image of a pink elephant, to establish the frame of reference
    2. Compares the image with its existing registrations
    3. Deletes the image

When we try to help someone to delete a negative model, the practice which forces the mind to create strong images of this negative model is destructive, because it strengthens rather than weakens these images.

To give a practical example from the world of the classroom, if we wish to change the habits of a student who always forgets his homework , we should say: “Remember to do your homework!”
What teachers usually say though is “Don’t forget to do your homework”, which programmes the student to forget. E.g., remind your students to REMEMBER TO PAY THEIR FEES (!) if you want them to do this on time rather than the opposite (Don’t forget to pay ….)

It follows then that if we CHANGE THE WORD, we…


It is very useful to use that type of vocabulary, which will create powerful positive images and which will lead to an emotional state encouraging:

  • Collaboration
  • The Expression of higher values
  • The creation of an educational environment free of anxiety and stress

It is a very good idea to encourage all those involved in the process of education, whether teachers or taught, to introduce more and more, if not use exclusively, words of empowerment into their vocabulary.

Some Examples

See below how the negative words on the left can change into their counterpart empowering vocabulary:

  • mistake
  • terrorist
  • impatient
  • if
  • I’m too old
  • lesson
  • freedom fighter
  • enthusiastic
  • when
  • I have great experience

Do remember that in addition to all the negative words and expressions mentioned, the word ‘but’ has a special role which is worth looking into: ‘but’ cancels out any positive word mentioned before it. For example, when we hear someone say: “I’m fine, but I don’t think it will last for very long”, what his/her real message is saying is this: “I know that my good mood will not last for very long.” And possibly, this is what will happen, since in this way we throw away the opportunity of creating our own destiny ourselves.

‘I must’, ‘I shouldn’t’

I would suggest to you that these words that we often hear and say are rules and restrictions or personal values which often make our lives very difficult.

Instead, we can change MUST into I WANT TO or I CHOOSE TO and immediately a large part of the anxiety and stress which dominates our life will begin to disappear.

Olga Gouni

About the Author

Olga Gouni started out as a lawyer, continued as a TEFL teacher and Foreign Language School Owner and manager for many years. She made a very big career move when she decided to complete her studies in Sociology & Psychology, and for more than ten years, she has been working as a Social Psychologist  with a special interest in education.

You can read more about Olga’s work here.

Categories: Guest Post

2 replies

  1. A great post indeed!
    It made me think of a well-written book I have just finished called ‘The Metaphors We Live By’ by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson/The University of Chicago Press which I strongly recommend.It is about metaphors as parts of everyday speech and how they affect the ways in which we perceive, think and act.

  2. Tremendously valuable post!

    A successful paradigm of this is the daily situation in our EFL classroom. It follows then that if we CHANGE THE WORD, we…

    It is very useful to use that type of vocabulary, which will create powerful positive images and which will lead to an emotional state encouraging:

    The Expression of higher values
    The creation of an educational environment free of anxiety and stress

    a postively thinking EFL classroom…

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