Words vs. Actions: Which is Greatest?

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When was the last time you heard someone say, “actions speak louder than words?” How about, “the pen is mightier than the sword?” Words and actions have been stuck in an endless grudge-match since both coexisted. Both have their merits and pitfalls, their strengths and weaknesses. Yet does one have an advantage over the other? Are words in fact stronger than actions? Or will actions always win out over words?

There’s no question that words can be very powerful, a topic I’ve touched on before. We’ve all felt their power at one time or another in our lives: “you’ve passed”, “you’ve failed”, “you’ve got the job”, “we’ve given the job to someone else”, “I love you”, “I hate you”, “I’m so proud of you”, “I’m so disappointed in you” are simple examples of phrases that have most likely had a profound effect on you when you’ve heard them. Even “yes” and “no” can be powerful within certain contexts; just think about the impact either word can have in answer to the question, “will you marry me?”

Words have proven their power through the evolution of language and communication. It’s important to realise that our use of words is not only for pragmatic reasons. Consider the difference between reading a book in order to obtain knowledge and information, and reading one purely for pleasure and enjoyment. Consider why we read poetry, or listen to songs. Greeting card companies exist because of the power of words. Words influence us. They are powerful enough to alter our thoughts and our emotions. If they can alter our thoughts and emotions, then they can also influence our actions and behaviour. If our can be determined by words, then perhaps they are more powerful than actions.

However, what are words without actions behind them? Consider a situation where someone says they can do something, but then demonstrates they really can’t. Or makes a promise, but fails to keep it. Or apologises for something they did, and then does exactly the same thing again. The words become meaningless, and words without meaning have no power. They lose their ability to influence, convince, or support anything. In this sense, words need actions; they are dependent on actions to reinforce them, to give them credence and credibility, to make them mean something. Actions reveal the level of truth behind the words, and that determines what influence the words have upon us.

For example, if someone says, “you can trust me”, and then demonstrates through their actions that you can in fact trust them, this will have a powerful effect on your perception of that person and relationship with them. However, an equally powerful effect will occur if that person’s actions demonstrates that you cannot trust them. The words themselves are unchanged – “you can trust me” – so they are not what determines the direction of influence. It is the actions the person undertakes after speaking them that determines their meaning (or lack thereof), and the ultimate outcome. If words can only derive their meaning from the actions behind them, then it surely it stands to reason that actions are stronger than words.

Consider what happens though when there are no actions, or to put another way, when someone undertakes the action of inaction. You’ve probably encountered this situation numerous times: ever sent an email or left a voice message and not had any response from the recipient? Ever scheduled an appointment with someone and they just haven’t shown up? Ever told someone something and their only answer was silence? Those who follow the concept of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) tell us that a person cannot not communicate: that is, even when someone does not respond to us, that lack of response is in fact a response in itself. The problem is, how do you know what they’re trying to communicate to you? Are they ignoring you? Are they indifferent? Are they considering? Do they simply have nothing to say or contribute? Or perhaps they haven’t had time to respond? Maybe they didn’t get your message at all? How do you know what they’re telling you?

The fact is you cannot know what the lack of action means without some form of clarification, and this will almost always be through the use of words. Words can explain both action and inaction, and thereby give those actions context and meaning, which then helps our understanding and comprehension. In fact, sometimes words are all you’ve got to be able to convey something to someone else.

Consider a couple separated by distance – perhaps one is a soldier stationed overseas, or needs to travel for business, or for whatever reason just can’t be with the person they belong with. Under these circumstances, the physical presence that conveys the love, security, and support through the many non-verbal cues and actions that occur when they are together is absent. Does this mean all those things suddenly stop, or change, or become less important? Not at all. However, many couples struggle with this situation simply because while they detect this absence – that something is ‘missing’ – they are unable to resolve it, or at least accommodate it, through other means. In this instance, words can be vital, because they might be all you have. We know that words influence feelings, emotions, and behaviours, and if it’s all you’ve got, then doesn’t that make them a great asset in terms of maintaining what you share as a couple?

This is not to suggest words can substitute for actions, nor that one needs to become a poet or bard in order to use words effectively in this type of situation. But saying something – saying anything – about how you feel about someone, what they mean to you, how important they are to you, or your relationship together is to you, can help ensure that you don’t ‘lose’ anything during your time apart.

Now here’s the real kicker. Ask a couple that’s been through this: was it the words themselves, or the action of expressing them, that made the difference? What do you think they will say?

It’s easy to keep going around in circles with this discussion, and therefore why words and actions have been squaring off for so long. Is one stronger than the other? Sometimes, yes, one does appear to be stronger, or have more meaning, or more power, than the other. Ultimately though, both words and actions are equally powerful; it is the context that determines the balance between the two. What does this mean in practical terms? My advice would be: don’t choose a side, or better yet, choose both sides. Just say what you mean, and mean what you say, and you will have the power of both.

Where do you stand? Are actions more important than words? Are words more powerful than actions? Are both equally important to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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