Words that Hurt and Words that Heal

 Joe Provisor, Circle Ways

A protocol for turning towards the effect of language on relationships in a school setting

We cannot legislate behavior.  We can, however provide opportunities for people to reflect on their behavior and perhaps take a beat before engaging in it repeatedly or automatically and so to make a different choice.

Acknowledging the ever-growing normalization of profanity, insults, and put-downs used in public and in the media, this classroom protocol allows for exploration and reflection on words that hurt and words that heal. If school staff become aware of the free use of words that hurt, one can write a letter from the heart expressing perhaps the sadness and fear you feel when you notice this.  If an administrator writes the letter, copy and distribute it to each council.  In the circle, a place is held for this person and the letter is read as if in council.

Pre-council activities:

The old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is not always true.  Words can hurt and words can heal.  Ask students to say words they have heard that might hurt someone.  List these on the board.  Don’t censor.  In this context, it is appropriate to write whatever words the students say.  After taking the first words that come, begin side coaching, gathering words that could hurt, women, men, people who don’t identify with a particular gender, black people, white, brown, Mexican, Arab, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, people who are poor, immigrants, etc.

Then, ask students for words that heal, words that encourage people, give them strength, and raise them up when they are down, etc.  No need to go through the categories again.


With the words still visible, ask, “How many of you have ever used any of the words that hurt?  How many of you have ever been hurt by one or more of these words?  How many have heard someone say any of the words that heal to you?  How many of you have ever used one or more of these words to encourage, strengthen, heal, or just make someone feel better.

Noting the likely unanimity of response, initiate the council.  In the first round, share stories of words that hurt, actual experiences of having used or been the target of these words.  Use basic council form with a web for additions.  Call for simple echo witnessing (just an echo of something you heard person another say).  For the second round share stories of things people have said to you or that your have said to others that gave strength, encouragement, made you feel better, etc.  Follow with a witnessing round.  Conclude with a harvest round, with participants noting what they are taking away from what they heard.  If it seems appropriate, ask students to say one thing that could make the situation regarding words on campus better for all.

These councils provide students an opportunity to reflect on how words affect relationships.  They will get a feeling of the life-affirming qualities of words that heal as well as a sense of the impact of words that hurt.