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Anna Suswillo, who was Homeless Link's Partnership Manager for the South region, explores the power of words and how if we focus on our language now, we run a better chance of building healthy, positive relationships and plans. The blog was originally published in July 2020 in the early days of the pandemic.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about the huge opportunities presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of this, quite rightly, centres on accommodation options for people who have moved into hotels from the streets. There is also a growing conversation, particularly among the frontline services, about the potential to work differently. I’ve seen services working flexibly, trying new things, being less risk averse – and it has worked. This is a key moment for culture change, to move to a more effective and positive way of working. However, what I haven’t seen is discussion around the integral role language must play in this.

The power of words

We often overlook the power of words, but any child who has been bullied can tell us how much it’s the words that stick. They shape our perceptions of the world around us, influence our attitudes and signal what we value and what we don’t. Areas are at key stages of planning, and have the potential to change their local systems more influentially than ever before. However, positive change will not stick if there is not the right language to describe what you’re doing. The words we use are always significant, but right now, when so much communication is through phone/video calls or emails, our words take on a new weight. Language is now more important than ever.

If network meetings refer repeatedly to “the homeless” or “rough sleepers”, then this reinforces the idea of a homogenous group and de-emphasises that we are discussing people. This is something that happens at any time, but is more dangerous right now, when we must look at how we can capitalise on a crisis to support individuals into long-term housing solutions, being as flexible, creative and individually responsive as we can. Considering people experiencing homelessness as a homogenous entity, or someone as a stereotypical “drinker”, makes it easier to dismiss a particular case and avoid thinking more deeply and personally about their situation. We know that individually tailored responses are more effective – our language needs to remind us to think in this way at all times, even while under pressure or in a stressful meeting.

If support sessions are focusing on the negatives of someone’s situation – either pre- or during lockdown, then the overwhelming sense the listener retains is one of negativity. Phrases like “you can’t”, “you mustn’t”, and “you should stop” are only going to reinforce all the things that the person cannot do or has not done. Instead, raise things that the person has done well previously and will be able to do again; focus on the future and positive, personal goals. If you only talk about a person’s perceived limitations, they begin to be defined by them and it becomes even harder to overcome personal barriers because they’re also carrying someone else’s perceptions.

Focus on the positive

Think about the questions you’re asking people – do you ask whether someone is “a drug user”, so defining them, or do you ask if they “use drugs”? Many people are working with services for the first time, or even the first time in a very long time. Their experiences need to be positive to rebuild trust, and language has an essential part to play in this – both when working directly with the person and when discussing their case with a colleague.

If your team conversations are currently dwelling on the problems, challenges and enormity of the situation, it will be easy for everyone to lose morale. This is a difficult time for staff, and the opportunity to express frustrations is crucial. However, it is also important to remind people of what amazing work they’re doing, how the sector has moved mountains in such a short space of time, and how we have an opportunity to do something different. Compliment one another, look at success stories, and reassure one another that it’s ok to take a break sometimes! At Homeless Link, we use Solution Focused Practice in our Communities of Practice for frontline workers. We don’t ignore challenges, but we put the emphasis on looking at positives and possibilities, and the sessions generate more tangible actions than if we had focused purely on problems. Homeless Link is also one of the national partners of the Framing Homelessness Project, funded by Comic Relief and led by Crisis. The project is working to achieve a shift in the way that we talk about homelessness in our sector by using the framing approach.

These changes might feel simplistic and not important at a time of crisis, but they are crucial. Words are powerful things, and are an important foundation for any kind of culture change. It can be so easy to fall into the pattern of what is familiar or even what is shorter to say – but to do this is to subconsciously reinforce the attitudes that you’re trying to change. If we focus on our language now, we run a better chance of building healthy, positive relationships and plans that can outlast the crisis.