Words of War? Choosing the Right Language for Your Culture

Language matters, especially during a crisis.

The language healthcare organizations use needs to reflect the culture and the mission of that organization. It might be words of war, it might be something else. The key is to reflect who you have always been in the words you choose.

Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.

Read the transcript

David Shifrin: Welcome back to JInsights on the High Stakes podcast. I’m David Shifrin and we’re starting off this week, once again, with our CEO, David Jarrard, to talk about the role of words in this moment that we’re living through right now, and how to choose the right ones. 

So David, I will let you take it from there. 

David Jarrard: Thank you, David. Language is always important. Words are always important. They’re particularly important now because when things are chaotic and people are looking for direction and clarity, the words you use and the language you use and how you deliver themhave a special sensitivity and great power if you use them the right way, but also great power if you don’t. 

It’s particularly important now also because this is an unprecedented moment, meaning we don’t have a reference point. We can’t say, ‘it’s just like this time or, it’s just like that time or, remember this? Instead, we’re in the middle of something newwhich means we need a vocabulary and a metaphor for understanding it and framing it, so people know their role in it and how to act in it. So the words matter a lot. Words we hear coming out of the White House and others are military war words—we are warriors, we’re in a battlefield, there’s going to be winners and losers. That doesn’t have to be your language. 

The language for a healthcare organization needs to reflect the culture and the mission of the organization. Do you have soldiers in your ER and warriors? You might. You might have caregivers who are answering a callingwho are on a mission, who are fulfilling a great purpose, who are sacrificing themselves. 

I think it’s important that who you are today reflects who you have always been. What’s your mission? What’s your vision? Who are you serving? What’s the culture that you want today? And what do you want your culture to be on the other side? Thenas you think that through, use that language consistently throughoutThat’s leadership communications. That’s your classic internal communications, your external communications.  

In this moment when there’s so much communications and media coverage and important things that have to be said and important things that have to be heardbeing concise and repetitive and consistent is everything. It’s everything to penetrate the cloud of noise where your caregivers are living and patients are living today.  

DS: What about the need to pair words with actions and the relationship there? 

DJ: So the great mistake at this moment would be to say one thing and do another, or to say one thing and not do another. The great mistake might be for leaders to be ”rah-rah” and happy and full of positive energy about the moment, when the reality can be pretty gritty and tough. To not reflect that wouldinstead of lifting up your organizationwould show a disconnect between leadership and caregivers and that only leads to discord and problems. You also really want to be able to put your words into action. I can imagine there are hospital leaders today and communication leaders who want to be able to do certain things for their caregivers; offer these supplies, have this level of staffing, provide this kind of relief and time off, and they’re just not able. That’s an extremely difficult spot. But you can lean into the communications about that and recognize that reality, acknowledge that it’s not what we would want, but it’s what we’ve got, and as caregivers is what we do together, because this is our mission. 

So David, here are three thoughts: One, is for everyone to consider their words carefully and to make them their words, not just reflective of words you’ve heard in the media and others, but have your ownership reflected in it. Be consistent across your leadership team as you use these words inside your organization. If there’s a third, it’s to acknowledge that, things are changing. To authentically acknowledge that when we know more, we’ll reflect that in our communications and when things change, we’ll let you know. 

Building that trust and flexibility inside your organization is a bedrock of change communications and crisis communications, and that’s where we are today. 

David Jarrard