words matter

Words Matter: The Importance of How We Talk About Our Clients

Hi everyone. Kelly Mahler, occupational therapist. While we have been on the topic of shifting lately, I have a question for you. Did you ever stop to think about just how important your words are, how important the language is that you use when describing your clients and their experiences?

Word choice is something that I am really cognizant of. It’s an area that I am continually working to update myself on, and to shift myself forward. I know that I don’t get it right all the time, and it’s an area that I am continually striving to be better in.

Our words do matter.

The way we talk about our clients can be extremely empowering or they can be extremely defeating or damaging. I was in a meeting recently and it was an IEP meeting. We were working to support a student who’s transitioning from a middle school building to a high school building. Both sets of teams were at the table, the middle school team and the high school team. The middle school team was presenting a little bit about the student, and many of the team members were referring to the student as “manipulative.”

That was really a stigmatizing word to be using. And quite frankly, it fails to capture that student’s inner experience. It’s really a surface term. It reflects that team was not thinking deeply enough about the whys behind the student and what they were seeing. To me, a lot of the “behaviors” they were describing were actually super savvy methods that this student was using to get his needs met in the school building. And here is this high school team, brand new to the student, never meeting the student before, setting up to support this student for the next four or more years, and the first thing they’re hearing about this student is that they are “manipulative.” That’s a really damaging way to talk about a young person.

We really need to think carefully about the words that we use. There are so many antiquated words circling around out there. Describing people as manipulative; oppositional defiant; challenging; attention seeking; doing something to escape, or avoid… Those are all surface level terms and fail to capture a person’s deep inner experience.

So, I’ll invite you to join me in this shift in updating the language that we use so that we can be better supporters.

Until next time.