Exploring the Impact of Words on Our Experiences

“When you talk,

you are only repeating what you already know,

But if you listen you may learn something new.”

-Daila Lama


This is a reflective, emotional, cognitive exercise that explores the impact words have on our reactions to stimuli.  Those interested in exploring verbal responses to negative and positive stimuli could be interested in the pedagogy activity below.


Since one of the main objectives of critical pedagogy is to problematize the world, and it is believed to be through language that problematization (and, later conscientizacao) occurs (see Paulo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressed), this lesson plan seeks to problematize the restriction of a particular category of language – language we use to express our feelings .


The audience for this activity depends on your objectives as a teacher/facilitator.  The activities below can be adapted for facilitation with middle schoolers, high schoolers, university students, students of pedagogy, psychology, counseling, conflict, and/or other adults.  The role of “recorder” in the activity would be particularly relevant to students of third-party interventions into conflict.


Here are some possible objectives for the activity.  They are posed as questions, in the spirit of problematization, and can be mixed and matched:


  1. For Adults
    1. How do words impact and/or mediate our experience with particular stimuli?
    2. What might be the impacts of removing words as a tool of expression?
  2. For High Schoolers (depending on grade level)
    1. How does it feel to not be given a voice, or at least the ability to use it?  
    2. What other methods (positive or negative) are required to respond to a situation when you are unable to speak about it?
  3. For Middle Schoolers
    1. How important are words to being able to respond to a situation non-violently?


Violence is an emotional response to an individual conflict.  As such, to use Paul Maclean’s triune theory of the brain, violence as a response is rooted in the reptilian and limbic brains, and the neocortical brain – where abstract thought and problem-solving take place – is deactivated or overrun by the two.  The use of “feeling words” to express feelings is viewed as a strategy, by the authors of this lesson, for the problem-solving brain to reassert itself and prevent violent responses to situations/stimuli.



  • Sticky substance or tape for index cards on walls
  • Index Cards with feeling words written on them.  A list of 100 or more words would be preferable.
  • Lesson Plan on Paper – one per student (this is for Step 5 which may or may not be applicable depending on your audience)
  • Five photographs, chosen by facilitators, that have been chosen to create an emotional response.  Each of the five photographs will ideally elicit different emotional responses (ie., anger, sadness, joy, connection, frustration).  




  • Step 1 – “Expressing or Observing Feelings” (7 minutes)



  • In this step – half of the students will be shown a series of photographs to which they must respond non-verbally.  The other half of the class in the meantime, and without seeing the photographs, observe the physical reactions of their partners and describe them in writing.


    • Students get into pairs.  One student (called a “recorder”) with something to write on, the other with nothing (called a “reactor”).
    • Students with writing material have their backs to where the photos will be shown and are instructed not to look at what is shown there.
    • Students facing the screen are not allowed to talk, but must show their reaction physically (in motion, or paused) to the images on the screen (there will be five).  Those writing should do their best to describe in writing the physical expressions of their partners
    • Students are asked to break out of their pairs and to take a moment to note how they felt during the exercise – We will be coming back to these thoughts shortly.”


    • Step 2 – “Swimming in Feelings”:



  • In this step, students are immersed in feeling words that they sort into categories.  The purpose here is to generate dialogue about feelings and the words used to describe them.


    • Break the class into four groups
    • Each group is given a set of words from the “feeling words” list and asked to arrange them and tape them into groups of four


  • Step 3 – “Naming Feelings”



  • In this step, students take feeling words and attribute them to their experiences in Step 1.


      • Each student walks around and looks at the words, noting down the ONE word that they feel best describes each of the five things that they saw (in other words, at the end of this step, each person will have five words – one for each stimulus.
        • “Recorder” will find the one best word to describe the physical reaction of the person they observed
        • The “Reactor” will find the one best word to describe how he feels about each image.


  • It is up to the instructor if (s)he wants to allow students to use a word not given on the initial index cards.  Whether or not this is allowed may stimulate discussions about power over language in the debriefing of Step 4



  • Step 4 – Debrief



  • In this step, students share the words they chose in Step 3 and have discussion around questions about the activity.


    • Students sit back down
    • Let’s share words for each image (Reactor’s give their words)
    • Let’s share words for each reaction (Recorder gives their words)
    • Reactors:  How does access to the words impact your experience with the stimuli?
    • Reactors:  How did the inability to use words impact it?
    • Recorders:  What did you see in the reactors who could not use their voices?
    • All – How does language impact our experiences to stimuli?


  • Step 5 – Review of Objectives



  • It is up to the facilitator to decide whether or not to use this step.  Your objectives will determine this.  This step was designed for students of pedagogy, although it is always good to review, at the minimum, a lesson’s objectives.


    • Pass out lesson plans to students.  Review the objectives together.
    • Discuss other possibilities for, and variations of, lesson plan.

This pedagogy activity was created by Andrew Della Rocca and Chimalang Ngu for Dr. Arthur Romano’s Conflict Resolution Pedagogy course at George Mason University School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution.  We hope this lesson plan can be used and shared by peace educators all over the world.

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