This SEAL assembly encourages secondary students to consider how words can be the cause of pain and suffering


  • Student volunteer
  • Board rubber


[Leader faces the audience, slightly squatting, with hands on thighs]

Leader: I want you to imagine that I’m 6ft 6 inches tall with bulging muscles. I’m wearing a black rugby shirt and shorts. The match is just about to start, but first I’m going to intimidate you by performing the Haka.


Well maybe that would mean stretching your imagination just a little too far!


Do you you understand what I’m talking about when I say the Haka? It is a fierce dance performed by members of the All Blacks — the New Zealand rugby team — before every match. It’s actually a traditional Maori dance which can be performed as a hearty welcome to honoured guests or to celebrate physical strength. The version the All Blacks perform is a version known as peruperu, the war dance. The fierce expressions, the ground-shaking stamping of feet and the bloodcurdling sound of the lyrics are intended to almost win the battle before it’s even started. The intention is that, by the time the Haka is completed, the opposition will be so intimidated, discouraged and frightened that they roll over and surrender.

The power of words!


Leader: There’s a saying that goes: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ That’s not true, is it? Words can be just as harmful as actions. They can cause depression, self-harm, even suicide in the worst examples. Words are weapons, some of the time.

What are the words that actually cause hurt; that do the most damage? It’s rather a difficult question to answer. There’s no way to evaluate one against another. Does ’Fat slag!’ hurt more than ‘Pig face!’ or ’Swot’? Does attaching a swear word give it even more impact? Maybe the truth is that size doesn’t necessarily count with any kind of ‘weapon’: a small bullet can kill just as easily as an atomic bomb, as long as it hits its target. Perhaps it is the same with words.

Here are three ways in which words can be powerful weapons:

First, when it touches a place where a person is vulnerable. We’ve all got our sensitive areas. They may be to do with looks, abilities or achievements. Possibly we have some secret embarrassment that we don’t want revealed – perhaps something we said in the past that we now regret, or a time when we revealed our emotions or subjected ourselves to a humiliating failure or rejection. Any comment on these parts of our life, however subtle or quiet, will be like a knife twisting in our side.

Second, words can be powerful weapons when they are used at a time when we feel most vulnerable. Sometimes it takes very little to make us snap, because we’re rather down, just getting over an illness, coping with bad news or generally stressed (just think of exam times). Some people are affected by the time of day, the seasons, certainly by the time of the month. We’re wide open to attack and the slightest hint of criticism or sarcasm can feel immensely hurtful.

Finally, words can do damage when they are communicated to a large number of people. They may be trivial or actually untrue, but as they circulate they somehow seem to gain power. That’s why there are laws against libel (saying untruth) and slander (speaking untruth) when they damage someone’s reputation, particularly when spread by the news media. The version of this that’s prevalent amongst teenagers, of course, is cyber bullying. To circulate gossip or pictures by mobile phone or via the internet in order to cause embarrassment and hurt is one of the cruellest things one can do.

How can we illustrate the effect words can have when used as weapons? I’d like a volunteer to act as a target.

[Invite a suitably robust student to the front]

What sort of words could we throw at (student’s name), I wonder? No, I’m not going to ask for suggestions. Let’s just imagine that you’ve said the most hurtful words you could possibly think of. What effect might it have on him/her?


Here’s a way to think of it.

[Leader takes the board rubber]

Imagine that when …… heard the first word, a little bit of him/her was rubbed out.

[Leader pretends to rub out an eyebrow]

The next word had the same effect.

[Rub out the nose]

And the next…..etc

[Continue the demonstration for 20 seconds until the whole student has effectively been rubbed out.] [Pause]

That’s the effect words can have when they are used as weapons. They depersonalise us, robbing us of our identity. They destroy our self-image, our sense of self-worth. Words are very dangerous weapons.

Of course we’d never do that. Would we?


Who are the people who know when you are at your most vulnerable?


Who are the people who know where you are most vulnerable?


Who would you feel most let down by if they broadcast gossip and lies to the whole school?


I think the most obvious answer to all these questions is your friends. And that’s when words become the most powerful weapons possible – when they are used against you by those you trust the most. It’s like Julius Caesar being stabbed by his friend, Brutus. The sense of betrayal makes a simple word have a devastating effect.

It’s a responsible business being a friend.

Meanwhile, think about the words of this prayer. Make it your own if you wish.

God our protectorGuard us at the times we feel vulnerable to the slightest joke or criticism.Give us a constant sense of our worth, to act as a shield to deflect words that could cause hurt.Help us to be a sensitive friend to those we know, never taking advantage of their vulnerability.Instead may we give support, encouragement and affirmation.


This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2009

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