Language and the Words We Choose

20140616_134612Our language, the words we use when we use them, our inflection, emphasis, and our body language are all critical elements of building and leading a safe culture – so too are the feedback loops necessary to keep us honest.

I recently read the transcript of Don Berwick’s 2010 Yale Medical School graduation speech as case study preparation for this year’s Patient Safety Summer Camp in Telluride. One of the most poignant aspects of his speech for me, is the reminder of the power of the words we choose. Don reflects on a patient’s wife hearing the word ‘visitor’ as a label to identify her when visiting her sick husband. Don asks us to reconsider this, to change our mindsets, to think differently.

Don invites us to make a personally accountable choice to consider that it is us, physicians, nurses, housekeepers, technicians, the entire care team – that are in fact the real ‘visitors’ in the lives of those we care for. Think about it – the husband, wife, partner, lover, friend, child, sibling they are the relationships, the rocks, the memories and also, in many cases, the caregivers. Think about how they want to spend time with their dying or sick family member, what do they need? What do they want to talk about? We must remember that we are indeed the visitors in the lives that we are fortunate enough to care for.

The students and faculty at this year’s roundtable have been using different words, and have been open to hearing feedback regarding their mindsets around language and the words they use. I spoke at a recent company meeting about feedback and how we can choose to think of it as either a tennis ball or gift. If the former, it comes at us fast, it could hurt, and we are naturally inclined to want to immediately hit it back. Thinking of feedback as a gift changes our perspective–if done right it’s packaged well, we can take it with us and open it when we want, and it’s ours to do with as we please (keep or discard…)

Watching the #TPSER10 faculty modeling openness to feedback and hearing the tough messages, and hearing the students give and ask for feedback is eye-opening and refreshing. John Nance reminded us that some element of communication failure is behind almost every sentinel event and serious safety event.

Our language, our words, our ability to ask for and receive feedback help us communicate better. Ask for feedback about your language and the words you are using, and then keep the gift…

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