Language, whether it be spoken or signed, is the vehicle for allowing us to express who we are and how we relate to those around us. Koprowska (2010, p. 12) suggests that “spoken messages are like a braid of which only one strand are the words themselves”. Clearly, what we communicate non-verbally has a massive impact on the way that our message is received but the words that we use are vitally important too.

The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is one that has been trotted out for decades to try to diminish the importance of people’s hurtful and careless utterances, but I think that most of us would agree that words have indeed hurt us and they have certainly got us into trouble. I have never forgotten a PE report when I was a very tall, big-footed 13-year old that said I was a “very ungainly child”. This stuck with me for years and certainly influenced the way that I thought about myself and my appearance. The words that we choose and the way that we say them have the potential to be devastating but they can also have a hugely beneficial impact on the people that we interact with, especially, as is often the case in professional settings, when we are working with people who might be vulnerable or going through a difficult transition in their lives. When we know someone well, we are usually in a position to qualify or correct or apologise for things that we might have said that have seemed careless or hurtful. In work settings, we might not know the people that we come across very well; first impressions are important and especially if they are relying on us for support, the way that we speak to them can make an enormous difference to how they feel.

The relationships that you will have with people in the work setting will often involve complex communication and so it is essential to remember that the context of the words spoken can depend on so many different things; the way they are said, where they are said, who says them and who hears them. Giving guidance on how to communicate verbally is difficult; effective communication is not an exact science and if we start to create rules about how to communicate we are in danger of taking away the natural, warm and genuine way that people communicate with those in their care. We are all different and where one person might find formal communication comforting and appropriate, another might find it cold and impersonal. This section gives you ideas to reflect on and encourages you to think about the way that you use verbal communication without being too prescriptive. Throughout this book you are asked to reflect on verbal communication in conjunction with other important elements but at this point, it would be useful to think about how we verbally initiate any interaction in a health and social care setting.

Language is subjective and people may attach different meanings to the same message depending on their experience, environment, age, gender, culture; even what might have happened to them five minutes ago. When considering the importance of verbal communication with people in health and social care settings we need to be aware of the impact of our choice of language on them. Words and phrases can have a denotative or surface meaning, and a connotative or hidden meaning. A seemingly harmless comment like “You look tired today” might have been intended as a mere statement of fact (denotative) but depending on the way it is said it could be construed as rude or sarcastic or critical (connotative). Moreover, the mood and mind-set of the person hearing the comment might decide that the speaker is saying “You look dreadful” or “You look old”. A simple question like “How are you feeling today?” would avoid most possible pitfalls and allow the person being asked to say as much or as little as they want.

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