The language of compassion

May 9, 2013 | Filed under

Scrabble word

Changing the culture is the unifying phrase post Francis – but what exactly does this mean? One thing that caught my eye this week was an article called “The Language of Compassion” (Crawford et al 2011). This study explored the use of language in healthcare settings, and found that language associated with “a  compassionate mentality” (p3 ) – including words like kind, gentle, warm, soothing and concerned-were used minimally by practitioners during interviews . The dominant language was one of threat (defined by Crawford as: “…practitioners are reminded of the precarious statement of their employment, the cost of failure, and are “micro-managed” in meeting the goals as set out by their organisation.)” The recent example of the implementation of  NHS 111 would provide a good case study perhaps?

It made me think about the importance of language, and how much it symbolises culture and validates behaviour. For example, I cringe whenever a (usually) elderly patient is referred to as a “bed blocker” – an accusatory term at best – or people are described by their bandings (not a staff nurse , but a band 5). This dehumanising language must surely have an impact upon the social context within which people operate, and affect the care given to patients. It strips people of their identity and seems a leftover to me of the Taylorism approach of employees being processed almost like machines.

Maybe if we all tried to be mindful of the importance of language as a first step in changing the culture and behaviours endemic in the NHS, that would be a powerful start?

I wonder if there are as many unhelpful terms and inappropriate words use in primary care settings, (“heart-sink” patient springs to mind!) and whether it would be interesting to collect them all up, and campaign to replace them with words which stimulated the compassionate mindset Crawford et al (2011) refer to.

Why not email the Alliance with your suggestions…? –

Crawford, P; Gilbert, P et al. 2011. The Language of Compassion. Taiwan International ESP Journal, Vol.3:1,1-16.


The comments are those of Yvonne Sawbridge, vice chair, NHS Alliance.