published on
August 1, 2023

Why words matter when you’re providing care

Nicola Hopkins
posted on
Care professionals
Why words matter when you’re providing care

Think of a time someone's words have changed the way you feel about yourself.

Words matter. 

They make a difference to how we see ourselves, and others. 

That’s why it’s so important to think about the language we use while working in care – we’re responsible for a person’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

So, what happens when we’re not careful about the words we use when talking to, or about, someone we’re caring for? 

Here, we'll give examples of language to avoid when working in care and why we should stay away from it, and give examples of what to say instead…

Labels are for cans, not people

Words can easily become labels – and labels can hurt people. 

For example, using phrases like “the diabetics”, “vulnerable person”, ”a double”, “challenging” and “non-compliant” turn people into the symptoms and long term conditions they live with, rather than recognising them for who they are as a whole - which isn’t fair. 

Labels can affect the health, mental wellbeing and behaviour of people getting support in care settings, and change how they’re seen by doctors, nurses and others.

Words matter

Words affect people. For instance, phrases like “suffers with dementia” suggest pain and unhappiness. The term “lives with dementia” is much better, because it shows that a person has control and is living life with that condition .

Anything that suggests a person sits and does nothing could be harmful. For example, saying you’re “feeding” someone suggests something is being “done to” a person, which is a one-sided task. It’s much better to say “supporting to eat a meal”, because that phrase recognises the person’s own involvement in caring for themselves.  

It’s important to avoid ‘blaming’ phrases, too. “Challenging behaviour”, “non compliant” and “refuses to engage” all make the person receiving care sound like a problem you have to deal with, rather than a person with reasons for their actions. However, other things (like caregiving issues) could cause a person to act in these ways.

At its best, language that recognises the person you’re caring for as an individual – whether you say it out loud, write it down or use body language – can lower that person’s anxiety and build confidence. On the other hand, the wrong choice of words can be painful and upsetting, and could even make any symptoms of  illness or depression they have get worse . 

Speaking with empathy

Empathy is all about putting yourself in someone else's shoes – about understanding and sharing other people’s feelings. Speaking with empathy is a key part of giving good care. Here are a few examples of how to speak with empathy:

  • I’m here for you.
  • What do you need right now?
  • I’m happy to listen any time.
  • I’m sorry you are going through this.
  • I can see how that would be difficult.

Empathy can’t be faked. If your actions don’t match your words – if it’s clear you’re not listening or taking in what the other person is saying – this can destroy trust.

There’s no one-size-fits-all script we can follow when it comes to empathy, but there are so many benefits to being kind. For example, it can lead to better relationships with those you’re giving care to, and help improve someone’s mental or physical health. 

Language can empower

The language we use in care has the power to make life difficult for those in our care – but kind and helpful language can make life so much better.

Here’s a quick recap:

  • Avoid phrases like ‘suffers from’ because they suggest pain and a sense of hopelessness.
  • Avoid ‘victim’ words. Instead, use language that  treats people as individuals with control over their lives.

Here are the NHS England best practice guidelines:

  • Words – whether spoken, written or body language – have a lot of power and can have positive or negative effects.
  • Recognise that some words, phrases and descriptions can be seen as hurtful – no matter what your intention is.
  • Use language (including tone and non-verbal gesture) that is: 
  1. Non-judgmental and positive. Never suggest scary long-term consequences, and avoid scolding (‘telling off’).
  2. Person-centred (also known as ‘personfirst’), to avoid labelling a person as their condition.
  3. Cooperative and engaging, rather than controlling. 
  • Avoid ‘blaming’ language that suggests a person is responsible for their condition or its effects. 
  • Don’t generalise about people, use stereotypes or prejudicial language. Stay away from phrases that suggest an individual is the same as other people with similar backgrounds or in similar situations. 
  • Be thoughtful, and use kind, empathetic language to find out a person’s point of view – never assume anything.
  • Listen for a person’s own words or phrases, and explore or acknowledge what they mean. 
  • Ask for feedback from the people you work with, and stay mindful of the non-verbal communication (body language) you use to make sure it isn’t negative.

If you’re interested in finding out more, check out the Pathway to Care Programme Communication Module or the Core Communication Module on Florence Academy. There are also many more courses you can take to improve your skills like our First Aid and Basic Life Support courses.

Florence can help you find flexible shifts near you, take essential training courses and improve your work-life balance. Find out more and sign up today.

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