Word mines are benign words to which people attach intense personal meanings. Benign words spoken by one person can trigger deep emotional feelings in others. Word mines are burried deep within people. Stepping on a word mine causes an intense emotional eruption. The person who inadvertently steps on a word mine is left stunned and confused not realizing that the benign word he or she spoke activated deep emotional feelings in the other person. A speaker at a lecture I attended made reference to the fact that people have two ears and only one mouth meaning that people should listen twice as much as they speak. On the surface these words are nonthreatening and contain sound advice. However, one participant perceived these words as offensive and vehemently complained to the sponsor of the event. The participant demanded an apology from the speaker. In a later discussion with the speaker, the participant explained that his son was born without one ear and felt that the speaker’s comment made fun of his son. The speaker apologized but remained perplexed. The speaker spoke wise words, yet became a rhetorical villain.
The hazard of word mines is that people do not know what emotional meanings others attach to otherwise innocuous words. When word mines unexpectedly go off, people tend to respond defensively to the unexpected emotional outburst, which typically intensifies the initial response. A person who steps on a word mine and reacts defensively is often seen as insensitive and lacking compassion. The recipient of an unexpected emotional explosion is often left confused not knowing what to do or what to say.
Empathic statements are the best response to word mine explosions. Empathic statements capture a person's emotional feelings and reflect those feelings back to the person using parallel language. Empathic statements acknowledge the person’s feelings without the need to go on the defensive. The basic formula for constructing empathic statements is "So you..." This basic formula keeps the focus on the other person and away from the person who stepped on the word mine. People naturally tend to say something to the effect, "I understand how you feel." The other person automatically thinks, "No, you don't know how I feel because you are not me." Empathic statements allow people to vent their emotions. Once the pent up emotions are vented, the conversation can usually return to a normal exchange. Avoiding a heated exchange with an emotional person increases the probability that the relationship continue to develop. Nonetheless, a mental red flag should be affixed to the word mine to avoid future detonations.
The politically correct world in which we live is a dangerous place strewn with word mines. People can never be sure they will not step on a word mine. Personal relationships are difficult to initiate or to be maintained when the psychological landscape is dotted with numerous mental red flags. Society needs fewer word mines and more true communication.