Clean Up Your Language

by Gloriana Hunter

Peer support is weird. We in speak in mysterious sentences that we call recovery language. We yak on about “person-first” and “self-determination”. We speak of a mystical recovery journey where the person gets to forge their own path. Often, the concepts we talk about don’t seem concrete, but we know that they go deep into the heart and soul. They change others. They change us. But sometimes we forget the power behind it. We adopt language that is not supportive – or worse, our words cast judgment.  To combat this, here are 5 Peer Hacks to help us remember to use recovery language.

  • Number of words: 684
  • Time to read: about 4 minutes
  • Value: Priceless

I have a riddle for you: Can you guess this plant? It is fully edible and very nutritious. It thrives in harsh conditions and people worldwide grow and harvest it for use in salads and stews. When it blooms, it’s flower is the brightest and purest yellow. It is an explosion of tiny petals, each cheerfully bright and reaching toward the sun in utter joy. When the flower matures, it becomes a white and airy puffball that gives complete happiness to every child who has blown its seeds into the wind. By now, you’ve probably figured out this is a weed we call the dandelion. And what do we do with weeds? We kill them, of course.

It’s all in the words we use. We can speak of hope – or no hope.  We can speak of empowerment – or rob empowerment.  We can speak of acceptance – or give judgment. How do we ensure our words are filled with hope, empowerment, and acceptance? Consider these 5 Peer Hacks.

Hack 1 – Humanize situations and people. Tell people they’re human and that their choices and circumstances are things others experience all the time. We have heard the stories of people who have risen above their challenges and their naysayers, but these folks are not doing what most people would do. Most of us – at least at first – cower when confronted with an overwhelming situation. Most of us let the naysayers’ judgments control what we can and cannot do. When this occurs for the people we support, we need to jump in with words of love and acceptance. Be vocal about it, reassure them, and ask questions that will help them define their next steps.

Hack 2 – Stay away from disempowering words. Words like can’t, must, and shouldn’t make you the naysayer. Let people know they have possibilities. Tell them that you believe in them. Support them in their hopes and dreams. People who didn’t finish high school can build awesome careers. People with deep histories in the criminal justice system can find creative ways to overcome their pasts. People who struggle with substance abuse can gain footholds and lead fulfilling lives. People who don’t want to take their medications, or refuse to engage with their clinical teams, or don't take good care of their hygiene are fully capable of shifting and healing in remarkable ways.

Hack 3 – Challenge your team to step up their recovery vocabulary. This is great if you have a lot of peer or family supports working alongside you. It will even work with some of your clinical teammates. Ask your coworkers to challenge you if they hear you say something that can be improved with recovery language. Ask them if you can challenge them as well. This is not about correcting people. Instead, share the brainstorming to come up with recovery-oriented ways to say something. Make a game of it. You’ll fine-tune your ears to catch non-recovery phrases, and so will those who play along.

Hack 4 – Count before you speak. When I was a kid, my Great-Grandma Esther said that I should count to ten before I spoke or acted in anger. I thought this was a whole gob of goofiness, but research shows that she was right all along. Counting does make a difference. It keeps your surging emotions in check and kicks in the logical part of your brain. Research also shows that you don’t need the full 10 seconds. In most instances, all you need is five. Not only does it work with anger, the pause can stop you from blurting out no hope, disempowerment, and judgment. It helps us to formulate great questions that nudge people toward growth. It keeps us from interrupting when the person is still speaking. Five seconds make us seem more thoughtful and is not too long so that the other person notices the delay.

Hack 5 – Humanize yourself. If you’re willing to humanize others, accept humanizing yourself. When your words come out all wrong, no worries. It happens to all of us. Correct your speech in the moment, apologize if needed, and move on.

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