You're In Good Hands. The Power of Words.

One of my favourite programmes to watch is “24 hours in A&E”, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about patients visiting a London A&E in a single 24 hour period. I don’t watch it for the gore and admit I sometimes have to turn away when I can see they’re about to zoom in for a close up shot.

But what I do like is how the programme captures so well the expertise and empathy of the staff, the fantastic teamwork and also how families can pull together in extraordinarily  difficult circumstances, circumstances I hope I never have to deal with.

I am also fascinated by the language the staff use. To aid efficient working the staff wear different coloured uniforms, purple for consultants, blue for doctors, red for the lead nurse, grey for other nurses and so on.

And they all have their own way of using words to make patients feel better.

The Power of Words

Take the issue of pain. When someone is clearly in pain they acknowledge it, they don’t ignore it or downplay it and of course this being a hospital they have some pretty powerful painkillers they can use if they need to.

But as well as injections they often have great skill at using words to positive effect. For instance they use the power of expectation when administering a drug “This will make you feel more comfortable……” not “this might” or “this may”.

They also use pre-supposition “When you feel more comfortable”, not “if” but “when”.

Both great language patterns to deal with the psychological aspect of pain.

And over time the staff may shift from using the word pain to “comfort”. “How much more comfortable are you now?” “Rather than “What’s the pain like out of 10?”. Pain is loaded word and they want to move the patient’s mind towards more comfort.  

The use of the word “now” also shifts the patient’s mind to the present rather than the past where they may recall how bad the pain was earlier on, or the future where they might worry about what happens if the pain comes back.

The staff are confident, they take charge of the situation and as one patient said “I knew I was in good hands as soon as the doctor arrived and I felt myself relax”.

Painfree words

All pain has a psychological element. Red painkiller pills work better than blue or green ones even when they contain the same drug. The effect is well known, it’s called the placebo effect and it’s real and due to the mind’s reaction rather than the body.

The mind's reaction to words is something to leverage whenever we can and those A&E staff I was watching do it very well indeed.