The power of positive language

Published: 9th April 2018
Recovery Programme Coordinator, Rebecca explores the power of language and how a small change in the words we use can have a considerable impact on the people we support.

Using positive language can help us to empower our customers

“She alleges that she drinks three times a week.”

“He admits smoking cannabis.”

“She denies hearing voices.”

I read statements like this time and again in notes about customers, and every time they sit awkwardly with me.  When you look at them properly, there is something wrong with them: each one implies a judgement.  A customer in a key-work session, or a patient in a psychiatrist’s office, is not on trial for their behaviour.  Yet the wording here- ‘admits’, ‘denies’, ‘alleges’- suggests that they are.

It isn’t for lack of neutral words that doctors write this way. It is just as easy to say ‘he stated that he smokes cannabis’ or, ‘she said that she drinks alcohol.’  These statements don’t make it seem as though using alcohol or hearing voices are crimes- they aren’t.

Language affects care in other ways.  If you use phrases like ‘she is bipolar’ or ‘he is so personality disorder (PD)’, you might reduce a person to their mental health needs or symptoms, and even risk being derisive.  Be mindful of what you are really saying when you say, for example, that someone ‘is PD’- are you referring to the elements of their behaviour that frustrate you?  This could then impact upon the way you treat them, or the way others perceive what you have said about them. You wouldn’t say ‘she is diabetes.’  Some people do prefer to say they are (bipolar/ schizophrenic/ PD) but many would rather not have it seen as their defining characteristic.  It’s OK to ask.  Maybe they’ll have some suggestions as to how to capture the ways in which they deal with their problems – for example, even saying ‘copes with’ can feel much more positive than ‘suffers from’ because it shows that customers are active in addressing issues or working with support.

How can we frame our support more positively?  I really believe that the most crucial part of what we provide is to empower customers.  This is a word we can use to describe our own role in our relationships with customers but, more importantly, to describe the way customers engage with and steer their own support to achieve their goals.  Every time we write or say that a customer ‘achieved’ a goal, ‘completed’ a support plan, ‘enjoyed’ an activity or ‘attempted’ to do something they found difficult, we are really describing their empowerment.  These are the victories customers are achieving on a daily basis, and these are the kinds of words we can use to really let the accomplishments of our customers shine through.  We want to show that they are constantly achieving and that we support and celebrate this.

This is how we best deliver care, and this is how we best co-produce with our customers.  Let’s express that in the way we communicate with and about our customers.  Let’s celebrate the relationships we build and engage with positive language- because this both reflects and effects, the way we work with our customers to build meaningful, individualised support.