Friday, 2 August 2013

Purple Badgers and Social Care

Really try hard not to think about a purple badger

Now having mentioned the purple badger it is probably highly likely that, in an attempt not to think about a purple badger that you have naturally conjured up an image of one so that you can try to not think about it! If I were more conventionally minded I probably would have said try not to think about a pink elephant, but now that I have said it has the pink elephant replaced the purple badger in your mind? Or are the pink elephant and purple badger co-exiting in multi-coloured animal harmony?

Naturally I do have a point about this.

To move to a less abstract level, have you ever witnessed someone saying to someone else, “mind the plate it is hot” and the instant reaction of the other person is to unconsciously actually touch the plate to verify that? Children are usually the best example to see this phenomenon in action – saying “don’t step in that puddle” invariable ends up in wet shoes and muddy clothes!
Language can be a powerful thing and what we say can have an impact on the behaviour of others.

Of course there is nothing new about this. Advertisers, marketers and politicians have been using various language techniques to tempt us, draw us in or deflect us for years. And, obviously, it is not an exact science. How we react to what someone says to us varies according to our own perceptions, views and upbringing. So if I were advertising bacon sandwiches you would have to actually like them before any advertising had any impact, and no amount of suggestion of sweet smelling, succulently crisp bacon being taken from the sizzling pan and being placed on deliciously soft freshly cooked bread would work.

So what does this have to do with social care I hear you ask (with a mouth full of bacon sandwich!)

Social care is intensely people orientated. Care workers work face to face with those who need care services, social care leaders supervise and manage those social care workers and the social care leaders interact with other agencies and in order to achieve the best possible care and support down the line we have to be aware of the power of language and the effect in can have on those we speak to.

Imagine a supervision where the manager tells a staff member that that must stop acting so defensively, the usual reaction is to say “I’m not being defensive” in a very defensive manner. If the manager were to say, “it would be good if you allowed yourself to relax more at work” then the reaction would be different and while the person may not actually relax now they would not have the image of being defensive.

Similarly, if a person with challenging behaviours were told to stop being aggressive they have to think about being aggressive before being able to stop it! This is particularly problematic when the individual does not perceive themselves as being aggressive in the first place. In such instances it is far better to focus on positive words such as relax, calm etc, (although calm down can be an issue – calm down from what?) as these words are better suited to the state you wish the person to achieve.

Even on a minor level we have to be careful what words we use. If I were to say – don’t forget to share this blog with others – the possibility is that you would forget! Yet if I said  REMEMBER to share this blog with others I am far more likely to get a positive result.

If you have read this far the purple badgers have probably slipped from your mind, oops they are back again! But in the future any time pink elephants are mentioned you’ll naturally have an image of purple badgers too!


Language is intensely powerful and it is important that, in social care, we are aware of this power. It is by no means easy to consciously and continuously control what you say to others but we have to be aware that the behaviours of others can be a direct result of what we have said rather than being something totally disconnected from us. Effective communication is the cornerstone of quality care and support and must be one of the key skills that is taught at all levels of social care, if we do not understand the importance of communication and language how can we effectively communicate with those who need care services and those we work with.