Words Matter: How to Make the Right Choices

Working in healthcare, I was humbled by the pain and challenge patients experienced and by the compassion of their caregivers. Kindness was as much a healing tonic as any surgical procedure or emergency intervention. Which is why it was so jarring to hear a scared young man with spots on his throat referred to as “a Stage Four.” We were listening to a report on a great treatment plan of wrap-around care, but I didn’t hear another word of the presentation.

‘Stop’ Words

Some words, some phrases, are so jarring that they offend our sensitivities and shut down our ability to listen. We just don’t hear anything else. Context is irrelevant when we hear the “n-word” or the “c-word” or “those people,” for instance.

Does your message include references that might make others bristle? Just as journalists are trained to isolate each fact so that it can be verified, communicators can highlight each adjective or descriptor to consider reaction. Not sure how older readers would interpret your use of the word “dope”?  Best to ask a few before you commit to print.

People First

One thing that can make a person tune out is to be identified by a condition or as part of a group rather than as an individual with unique characteristics. As a person who is hard-of-hearing, I don’t care to be called “disabled.” I have plenty of abilities; the smallest piece of who I am is someone who doesn’t hear well. While sometimes a person’s disability is the first thing we notice, we can and should condition ourselves to listen, make eye contact, observe. Then we can begin to discern who the person is and can engage more effectively.

In communication, it’s as simple as people first, situation or condition second. When we talk about “Mary, who is unsheltered” or “David, my friend who uses a cane,” we are not reducing people to simply “the homeless” or “disabled” (or worse, “handicapped.”)

One, Not All

You’ve seen it happen. One angry person rails against an issue with insults and invectives, then someone on the other side of the issue declares all opponents to be similarly shallow. Similarly, it may be human nature to try to make sense of a complex issue by simplifying it. But reducing legislative policy – or the group of people in opposition – to a bumper sticker slogan is unjust.

One vitriolic denouncer of city policy is just that. One person. He or she does not speak for or represent all who may oppose the policy. So it is inappropriate to infer that those rants sum up the opposition. As a communicator, we must measure when we use “part” to sum up the “whole.”

Taken together, these steps should ensure your communication is credible and effective. As for the best topic treatment? Well, that’s fodder for another post.

Amy Cloud is is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Tammy Seleski

Thank you! This needs repeating! I get arguments from others that I am “too P.C.” because I measure my words carefully.

Avatar photo Blake Martin

I agree with Tammy- this certainly does need repeating! Effective communication goes hand-in-hand with a kind and conscientious attitude. I’ve always kept this popular Maya Angelou quote in mind: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Often times, the “what you said” goes hand-in-hand with the feelings you created in them, for better or worse.

Amy Cloud

Thank you both, it is heartening to hear that others “get it.” There has been the to-be-expected pendulum swing back from “too PC” but I hope and believe that we never fully return to an era when it acceptable to dismiss people as “insert the negative stereotype here”…